Charity Support, Advice, Impact Measurement, Philanthropy Impact – NPC

Impact measurement: A how-to guide

By Eibhlin Ni Ogain 31 January 2012

We are all natural-born researchers. All you need is a sense of curiosity and a dogged nature to continue to ask questions, test new approaches and meticulously measure any change that occurs.

Most of us have this curious and inquisitive nature. It is only natural to want to know the drivers behind, say, changes in human behaviour, or the difference a particular service or intervention has made in a person’s life. This is why I find it hard to believe that impact measurement can sometimes be met with confusion–or even trepidation. Perhaps it is because impact measurement is still shrouded in an air of technical difficulty. Even the term itself can be prone to differences in interpretation. It shouldn’t be like this.

When we use the term impact measurement, all we mean is the tracking (or monitoring, or evaluation or measurement, whatever word you prefer) of the difference your particular charity, organisation, intervention or approach is making. And it is not difficult. Start with your own natural curiosity to think about the types of questions you want to answer. Deciding on the right questions can be the most difficult part of the process. If you aren’t measuring the right things, the results you get are meaningless. This is where theories of change can come in useful, to help you map a logical, causal chain of events that need to happen for you to achieve your final goal or mission.

Once you’ve decided on the right things to measure (or outcomes as we call them at this stage), you need to decide what tools you are going to use to start tracking progress. These tools can be on a sliding scale from the more robust to less robust. On the more robust side, and more straightforward to measure, are hard outcomes: definite, tangible changes that have occurred. For example, gaining a qualification, completing a course or moving into employment. But many charities work with people to improve the softer skills they need for these hard outcomes to happen. These softer skills can be around improving confidence, changing attitudes, fostering a sense of purpose and ownership, improving communication skills or improving someone’s social networks, amongst others.

These soft outcomes can be trickier to measure robustly. Charities often rely on case studies and interviews to show how these softer changes have occurred. The issue with this type of evidence is that although it is rich in detail and incredibly useful (and necessary) to communicate individual stories, they are too prone to bias (because they rely on one person’s own subjective feedback) and there is a risk that they are not representative of a charity’s entire client base.

This is where standardised questionnaires and scales come in useful. Psychologists and sociologists who study these softer skills and emotions have developed (over decades of research) robust scales to measure exactly the types of soft skills mentioned above. If the right scale is chosen and is given before and after an intervention, they can provide extremely robust evidence that change has occurred. What’s more, dozens of these scales are freely available for use online.

Charities needn’t measure the world but starting with a wisely chosen outcome and scale can make a world of a difference.

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If you’re still confused, NPC’s measurement team can always help!