Impact measurement: where the world is

As part of NPC’s drive to evaluate our effectiveness (which includes having our annual report analysed), I’ve been researching how the charity world has changed to see if it has moved any closer to achieving our vision of a third sector where impact measurement is the norm. This has involved talking to all the other NPC staff members to get their viewpoints – after all, their work focuses on achieving such a change, so who better to talk to for a sense of where the world stands now?

It seems that social impact measurement is definitely becoming more of a hot topic. We’ve seen growing interest in approaches like Social Return on Investment (SROI) (stay tuned for another NPC blog on that later this week), and a bigger number of charities producing impact reports (even if the data in these is often overly anecdotal and only focused on the positive, rather than on lessons learnt). Also, many more initiatives have been set up to encourage measurement among charities – as many as 12 organisations and sites in the US and UK since 2000, plus numerous other projects – but it would be good to hear more cases of where their work has made a concrete difference. The Government in particular could be doing more to enable charities to measure their impact, by developing evaluation frameworks and making the relevant national data more accessible for those charities which need it to assess their work.

It was also striking how little attention is given to the issues of impact measurement and charity effectiveness in the media, even within the sector. I found that on average less than 30% of articles in ThirdSector mention effectiveness; a figure that has not changed in the last 3 years. The figure in Charity Times in 2010 is even lower (around 8%). If this is the case within the charity world, we cannot expect to incorporate impact into the discourse of the general public, where there is still a worrying tendency to focus on administrative costs when assessing a charity (a 2008 survey by the Charity Commission found that 59% of people think charities spend too much on overheads).

So do we see the overall findings as positive or not? It’s undoubtedly a good thing that some changes are taking place, but should more have happened in the time we’ve had? NPC is continuing to develop measurement products like the Little blue book, and we welcome your thoughts on other ways in which we can best help both charities and funders to maximise their impact.