Knowing the difference

By Eibhlin Ni Ogain 16 November 2011

‘We make a difference’. This is probably one of the most commonly heard statements in the charity world. But have you ever stopped to think about what it really means?

Charities and funders make a difference to people’s lives in countless ways. But just knowing you are probably making some kind of difference isn’t enough: you need to know what difference you are making, how much it is and how it happens.

Charities usually have a pretty good picture of the difference they are making. They often work with people on the ground, can see change with their own eyes and hear the personal stories of the people they work with. However, relying on this kind of anecdotal information means that charities cannot communicate the difference they make to those who do not have this first-hand contact. It also means that charities do not have a complete picture of all their impacts and cannot systematically track or aggregate the progress of the people they help.

This is a problem because it means that charities cannot argue their case for funding, cannot make changes to their services to increase their impact and might continue running programmes that are not as effective (or in some cases, create harm). It also means that the field as a whole misses out—it has no robust data to demonstrate its value and cannot learn what interventions work best for different people and problems. The solution is for charities to set up robust research and evaluation methods to track the difference they are making to the people they help. This process has various names: monitoring, evaluation, research, outcome monitoring, social impact analysis or impact measurement. But whatever terminology you use, it all boils down to the same thing—robustly and systematically tracking the difference you are making to the people you help.

This is easier said then done. From our experience of helping charities to measure their impact, there is a lot more to implementing measurement than simply finding good measures. How do you convince staff of the importance of monitoring when they are already bogged down with client work, how do you develop their skills so that they are able to monitor and evaluate? What software to you use to store your data? How do you convince funders of the need to pay for such work? These questions are examined in NPC’s new report looking at six organisations at the forefront of impact measurement. The report examines how they overcame such barriers to develop impact measurement systems and what benefits they have received as a result.

However, the report is not just about the stories; we also outline a step by step guide and a number of resources to get charities started in their own journeys to good impact measurement.

In the current economic climate and with the government driving through a payment-by-results agenda, charities need to ensure that they are as effective as they can possibly be. We hope the stories of these six inspirational organisations in ‘A journey to greater impact’ can help them take the first baby steps to being able to show clearly the difference they are making.