Measuring together

By Matilda Macduff 13 April 2011

Setting out to measure your impact can be a daunting prospect. Trying to pin down exactly how much difference your charity’s activities make to people’s lives is challenging—at NPC we meet a lot of charities that are really keen to be able to show people the impact of their work, but just don’t know where to start.

So what is it that makes measurement difficult? Intangible outcomes are one of the most common challenges. How do you capture changes in relationships, feelings or attitudes, for example? Structural issues are also a problem. A lot of charities operate in complex and constantly changing environments, where data that could be useful to them is held by government and getting access to it is tricky. Resourcing issues are another common stumbling block: lack of money, time or skills. Funders can be reluctant to pay for evaluation, and many charities don’t have the skills or tools needed to measure impact. Finally, there are attitudinal barriers—often key people don’t grasp the value of capturing data, don’t use the data they have, or think that the problems associated with impact measurement are insurmountable.

So far, so gloomy—but the good thing is, a lot of these barriers can be overcome if charities work together. Almost all the charities NPC meets are trying to measure their impact in isolation. They are not collaborating with other organisations to share their approaches or expertise. Yet measurement is one area where charities really can collaborate successfully: organisations working in similar fields often have similar approaches and are trying to achieve the same aims, which means the processes and tools they need for measurement will be similar. Why not develop them together?

After all, two brains are better than one. The more input from different organisations, the more likely it is that the tools produced will be able to be adapted and used by a variety of charities.

This is the thinking behind NPC’s new Measuring together series of reports, which will build on work within particular areas of the charity sector and aim to provide standardised frameworks for measurement. The first report in the series, Improving prisoners’ family ties, is published today. It focuses on the results of our work with six charities working to build and improve relationships between prisoners and their families. Their work can boost prisoners’ employment prospects, prevent homelessness after release, reduce chances of re-offending, and improve the well-being of prisoners’ children. But proving the worth of these activities can be tricky.

Good results evidence can help charities to track and improve services, and help funders to allocate funding effectively. With budgets under threat, it is more important than ever for charities to be able to prove their worth. The Ministry of Justice will see its funding slashed from £8.9bn to £7.3bn between 2010/2011 and 2014/2015. Non-statutory services, such as those provided by the charities featured in our report, are at risk of being cut completely to save money, even though they could save the government more in the long term. Impact measurement may seem daunting, but it is important to prove to commissioners the value of the work charities are doing.