Impact measurement has come a long way since NPC was set up 15 years ago. From inception to today, we have maintained our forensic focus on measuring outcomes and impact. But there is still much more work to do. We still are not finding consistent evidence that charities are using the data that they are carefully collecting to make changes to their programmes and services.
So now we are asking those we work with: what changes have you made to a programme you are funding or a service you are delivering as a result of the data you collected? And despite this being a fairly straightforward question we rarely get a flood of responses.
That is not to belittle the good work that is going on across our sector—most often we hear that data is being collected but it is not really being consistently used to make day to day changes and improvements in the work of the charity.
NPC’s focus has started to shift and so have others’ in the sector. Now the term impact management is replacing impact measurement as the new kid on the block. So what is the difference? Is this just a phase or is it something we all need to engage with?
Impact management, simply put, is using your data to improve what you are doing.
So how can funders encourage this shift from measurement to management? Begin by asking the simple question of grantees—how has the data you collect been used to change or improve what you do? Encourage an honest response and use this as a starting point for your conversation on how you can support them to do more.
There are practical examples of how this can be put into action.
For example Resurgo Trust’s Spear programme collects daily data on ten indicators of job readiness for all the young people within their employment programme. This data is used as the basis of conversations with the young people on how the programme is working for them, serves as an early warning system if things are going off track and enables changes to be made for that young person.
The emphasis of impact management is on managing and doing. It is practical, not theoretical. Few charities or funders we know complain about a lack of data.
Recent research by The Good Economy Partnership found that 90% of their respondents collect feedback from customers/clients. At Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity working in schools, data is available by school level, by local cluster level, by region, and on a national level—at each level it can be used for performance monitoring.
IntoUniversity, a charity that supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attain a university place, provides staff with analysis on dashboards at all times so they can make small changes to their services. Like Place2Be, the data can also be aggregated up to examine the programme as a whole, make adjustments and enable comparisons between centres delivering similar services.
The commitment to learning and improving must be led from the top of the charity and within a culture that prioritises data collection. Action4Children has found that front line staff are more willing to collect data if they believe it will be trusted and used for decision making.
The Impact Management capacity building programme, funded by Access and Power to Change and being run by NPC, recognises the importance of leadership in driving good practice throughout the charity and requires the chief executive or member of the senior leadership team to attend a training session on impact management, designed and delivered by Impetus-PEF, before applying for a grant.
Our research has found that without a culture focused on learning and improving driven by senior management, impact data will remain just data and not be used to make changes.
Alongside a shift in culture, a greater focus on impact management will usually require changes in working practices, most often greater use of technology. Providing case workers with tablets to input data on site has become more common and gives them better control and understanding of their client’s progress.
Again, Action4 Children found that in order to do this successfully frontline staff needed to be involved in the design process to ensure usability—recognising that any changes need to work for the service users (as a personal development tool) as well as at the central data collection.
When Career Connect, a charity providing careers advice, began to deliver services within a payment by results structure (a social impact bond) it appointed a dedicated performance manager, and strengthened its management information systems in order to track data more accurately. These improvements helped Career Connect make better informed decisions around programme design and facilitated the evolution of the programme.
Bringing together an emphasis on practice (such as managing and doing), a commitment to learning and improving, and a culture shift that prioritises data collection can make great strides towards impact management.
Buy-in from the top of organisations will be critical, but all of us, funders and charities alike, can play a role in using our data to improve what we are doing.
A version of this piece originally appeared on the Alliance Magazine blog.