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Our journey towards impact measurement: from the MS Society

By Guest contributor 26 November 2014

Ed Holloway is Programme Director for Strategy and Impact at the MS Society, with responsibility for leading organisational strategy development and improving impact. Ed was previously Head of Care and Services Research at the MS Society, and before that he worked in project management and research roles at a number of health and social care charities.

The MS Society is a large and wonderfully complex organisation. Our aim is to beat MS, and we do this in a number of ways: funding research; campaigning for changes in the health, social care and welfare systems; and providing information, services and support to people affected by MS. Much of our work is delivered by thousands of volunteers, including through our 280 branches across the UK.

I believe this diversity is part of what makes us an impactful organisation, but it can also make it incredibly difficult to obtain evidence of that impact. I can name new treatments we helped to develop, describe the changes we’ve secured, and I’ve seen first-hand the difference our information and support can have on people’s lives. But producing the kind of evidence we need to persuade funders or inform our strategic decision-making can be much harder.

Our journey towards impact measurement started with a new strategy, to which thousands of people affected by MS contributed. This strategy establishes our seven organisational goals—the outcomes we want to achieve for people affected by MS—and sets out our approach, including a commitment to impact measurement.

We then worked alongside NPC to develop theories of change for our main areas of work. These were really helpful starting points and informed key parts of our strategy, but it quickly became apparent that we would need dozens of different TOCs to cover everything—and without a consistent approach, applying them would be almost impossible. We needed something much broader, that could set us on the right path before getting into the specifics of individual activities. And so we looked across the TOCs we had to identify commonalities—themes that applied to all of our work (for example, changing policy, or direct improvements in quality of life among people affected by MS).

This has informed an organisational impact framework, now in draft form, which sets out consistent principles that describe the impact our work achieves and how we might measure that impact. We hope to publish the ‘final’ framework early next year (although I don’t believe this can ever be fixed in stone).

We’ve also developed implementation plans for our framework—setting out how we will apply it to each of our goals. Where we already have TOCs we can develop and apply them; but we’ve also identified gaps where additional TOCs will be needed. Our strategy includes a commitment to working alongside people affected by MS and our volunteers, but also to working collaboratively across the sector whenever we can. We’ll be applying this to our impact framework as much as anything else.

We are far from completing our journey towards measuring our impact, but it feels like we’ve taken some big steps and have a good idea of where we need to be and how we can get there. The biggest lesson I’d share with those taking those first initial steps would be that it’s ok to not have all the answers, and you’re going to need to work together, across your organisation and outside it, to find them.