Talking about impact

By Guest contributor 16 September 2013

Adrienne Skelton is the Head of Evidence at the Big Lottery Fund, the UK’s largest Lottery distributor, providing funding for projects that bring real improvements to communities and the lives of people in need.

Everyone is talking about impact, and quite rightly.

At the Big Lottery Fund, we encourage applicants and grant holders to use evidence to help them plan their project, and then measure and communicate its impact. Getting Funding and Planning Successful Projects  is our basic guide to this process, used by organisations across the voluntary sector. We also work with and support others, including Inspiring Impact and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, to build common approaches to impact measurement and the use of evidence, so that organisations can learn how to build the right standard of evidence for them.

We know ‘impact’ doesn’t happen thanks to our money alone. The money is a catalyst to enable VCS organisations to make a difference to people’s lives. This means we’re not only interested in monitoring information and outcomes reports, but also things like case studies and feedback from beneficiaries, which gives us a richer picture of what our funding achieves.

As a large public funder, we want to know about the impact of our funding at four levels: project, programme (groups of projects), portfolio (set of programmes in each country) and strategic (impact on the VCS). This enables us to understand the changes achieved over time by projects and programmes we’ve funded.  Recent findings from our Well Being programme, for example, show how we have been able to look across the programme, demonstrating the impact of the projects on the people who had taken part.

We’ve also recently funded some exciting strategic evaluations, designed to tell us about the impact that different types of approaches have. The aim is to invest in this long-term work to properly test things out, and then use this evidence to help make the case for changing the way services are delivered in the future. We don’t underestimate the challenges involved in this; not least attempting to change the way commissioners, practitioners and policy makers operate. Robust evidence of impact is critical here, and we are going to be working alongside our grant holders in these programmes to try to achieve that.

We are fortunate to receive lots of information from our grant holders. Amongst the important information we use to assess and manage grants, there are also nuggets of learning and best practice that we need to get better at finding and sharing. This works well where we have an evaluation in place, but is harder (for example) on our open funding programmes, where there is a huge diversity of projects. We are interested in communities of practice, and how we can best enable grant holders to share learning and ideas.   

In this context, I’m looking forward to the upcoming conference on ‘Improving Impact Measurement and Analysis’ (15 October) and am particularly interested in hearing about people’s priorities: what are the biggest challenges and opportunities in front of us, and how can the Big Lottery Fund best use its resources to support this important area of work.