The power of thinking positive

By Matilda Macduff 12 June 2012

The challenges of impact measurement have been a topic of debate again this week in the sector, following an article by Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy in the Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network. He argues that small charities are at a disadvantage when it comes to measuring impact, the agenda is too prescriptive, and charities are not allowed to try out their own ideas. He concludes that charities ‘are not good at their impact measurement, let alone their impact communication’, and challenges his audience to name some charities that ‘deliver impact’.

This got me thinking about the way we talk about impact in the sector. A lot of the time, the focus is on the challenges—it’s a burden on resources, almost impossible to accurately measure outcomes, difficult to engage staff. In one way, this is a good sign that the impact debate has progressed: the focus has shifted from arguing about why we need to demonstrate impact to the practicalities of doing so. But I think we focus too much on the negatives, rather than looking for solutions and highlighting organisations who are leading the way.

Small charities can, and do, measure their impact very successfully, making use of the wealth of free data and resources that are already out there. When we analysed Elmore Community Services in Oxfordshire way back in 2008, for example, we were very impressed with its impact measurement, highlighting it as an example of good practice on our website. The charity had a turnover of less than £500,000, and ten staff members. Despite the challenges—it’s work is complicated, supporting vulnerable people with multiple problems who often fall through gaps in provision—the charity had an excellent track record of measurement. It uses the Outcomes Star to track changes in clients’ lives, demonstrating improvements across various areas such as housing and mental health. And more importantly, it uses this data when thinking about how to improve services and make its work more effective.

This is the key point: nobody is advocating measurement for measurement’s sake. It’s important to remember why we’re talking about things like outcomes and outputs in the first place. Measuring impact is important because it allows charities to think about how they can make their work better, help more people, and have a bigger positive impact on society. And it helps funders to channel their money to the most effective charities, so they ensure it makes the biggest possible difference and doesn’t go to waste.

There is still a lot to be done, and a lot of charities are struggling to prove the difference they make. But we should celebrate those that are doing a great job, the bright spots which offer an example to other organisations to learn from. It’s heartening that two of NPC’s most-downloaded reports are those which showcase charities who are particularly good at measuring and communicating their impact. Talking about results features charities that are great at telling stakeholders about the difference they make. And A journey to greater impact highlights six charities who are particularly good at measuring their impact.

People are interested in hearing about the success stories of their peers. By highlighting and learning from those who are demonstrating their impact well, we can achieve much more than by dwelling on challenges and shortcomings.