Members of a board of trustees plot their views about the difference their organisation makes onto a map of the geographical area that they cover.

‘I can tell these stories about every service but I’ve got no way of gathering them all up.’

Transforming anecdote into data is a common frustration for charities wanting to demonstrate their impact. But it is a particular challenge for multi-purpose community organisations.

Over the past two years we have collaborated with the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) on an action research project assessing the impact of multi-purpose organisations. Our research found that leaping straight to impact was impossible. Every conversation about impact began with an illustration about what is special about an organisation—for example,‘it’s been around for 100 years’.

Only after exploring these characteristics did we begin to talk about the actual difference that the organisation makes. In our research we identified four ways in which multi-purpose community organisations make a difference—tackling deprivation, integrating services, offering stability, and building confidence.

We then trialled three approaches to capturing this difference:

  • relationship mapping: using visual maps of organisations’ relationships to uncover ways that they make a difference to communities;
  • local economic analysis: understanding local money flows and how organisations can practically improve their local economic impact; and
  • stakeholder appraisal: using local opportunities to ask stakeholders a series of questions about the difference the organisation makes to the community.

These approaches each had their strengths and weaknesses. As a quantitative analyst, used to dealing with facts and figures, I was interested to hear that the qualitative approaches were more useful to organisations trying to get to grips with understanding their impact. The leap to straight statistics was too far—the organisations needed a systematic approach to eliciting impact from qualitative evidence.

Overall,we found that it is important for organisations to think carefully about their impact before selecting an approach to impact measurement. Our project demonstrated that although there may not be a one-size-fit-all solution,it is possible to develop approaches that are meaningful and relevant to different audiences.

You can read more about the research in the recently published final report.

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