There should be no I in Impact

By Benedict Rickey 7 December 2011

Impact without an ‘I’ would, granted, be a lot harder to pronounce. ‘Mpact’ sounds like a late nineties R&B group, not the difference the social sector makes to society. However, more consensus and collaboration would make it much easier to assess impact. That is the fundamental message of the Inspiring impact report, launched today by NPC and Views, and with the endorsement of almost two dozen organisations.

Pretty much everyone agrees that we need to get better at measuring the social sector’s impact. And yet, very few of us seem to agree on how exactly the sector should measure. At the moment, very few charities or social enterprises measure their impact in the same way; even those that work in the same field (eg, mental health) or intervention (eg, counselling). With each organisation developing their own approach, a lot end up reinventing the wheel rather than building on existing approaches. You could forgive them for feeling confused, given they have to pick from thousands of different methods. All this makes assessing your impact feel like a pretty hard slog for charities and social enterprises. And with so many different ways of assessing impact, the data is rarely comparable, making it near-impossible for funders to target resources on the most effective interventions. This means data is not used nearly as often as it should be…. making all this data-collecting feel like a bit of a waste of time. Given the significant costs and (seemingly) unclear benefits, chief execs of charities and social enterprises would be forgiven for asking “why bother?”

The question is: what’s going wrong? The answer is: not enough collaboration. Too much ‘I’ and not enough ‘we.’ And the fault lies not mainly with frontline organisations but with the organisations that are supposed to support them to assess their impact; including NPC. These organisations-consultants, think tanks, academics-have spent the last decade working largely in isolation to help the social sector measure its impact. The result is complexity and confusion for the organisations we’re supposed to help.

That’s why 30 leaders in the field of social impact measurement, including NPC, got together on 23rd September. We agreed that there are currently too many different ways of measuring, analysing and reporting impact data, and this is leading to duplication and wasted effort. We also agreed it is still too hard and costly for organisations to measure their impact to a high standard. We agreed that we need to work together more if we’re going to overcome these issues. During discussions we came up with five long-term goals:

  • Embedding a focus on impact into the leadership and culture of thousands of charities and social enterprises.
  • Adopting shared methods across certain fields (such as mental health) and key interventions (such as counselling).
  • Making it easier and cheaper for charities to measure their impact by providing appropriate, affordable, and accessible data, tools and systems.
  • Funders, commissioners and investors supporting a focus on impact and incentivising impact-based approaches in organisations they fund.
  • Creating an effective network of support, linked to shared measurement approaches and following best practice, so that most organisations know of and use support where needed.

If we achieve these goals, it will be easier to do impact measurement to a high standard, and the resulting data will be more useful. In short, impact measurement would be ‘working’ a lot better than it does today.

We’re not going to achieve these goals without a big collective effort. That’s why twelve organisations have agreed to put in some hard graft through the ‘Inspiring Impact Group.’  At NPC, we hope that this group will show just what collaboration can achieve for the sector, and its beneficiaries.

In the impact measurement field, we’ve spent too much time working in isolation. Let’s make sure the next ten years is all about collaboration. By working together ‘we’ can achieve a lot more than ‘I’.