When I was a Strategy Consultant, early in my career, I always told people I “helped solve complex issues for large multinationals”. In part this was true: the scale of the organisations and challenges they faced meant there was a lot of complexity. However, there was almost always a simple outcome: bottom-line profits. No matter what I consulted on, in the end it was a simple sum of changes in revenue, costs and profits. When I moved into the philanthropic world, I started dealing with a lot more complexity: how do you advise charities and other social purpose organisations, if there is no bottom-line profit to steer at?
Instead of maximising profit, social purpose organisations want to maximise their impact. For this, they need robust and useful impact measurement. It might sound simple, but measuring impact is a complex affair. NPC has been campaigning for good impact practice for the social sector for over 20 years – and we are still learning and updating our approaches every year.
One of my missions at NPC is to reduce complexity in impact measurement. Working in the Data and Learning team, I speak to charity employees about impact measurement on a day-to-day basis and it is tempting for me to talk about complex evaluation methods, ways to evaluate long-term impact and causal linkages. But the reality is that most charities do not (yet) benefit from complex impact measurement – they do not have the skills or resources for it and would end up spending time and money without tangible, actionable results.
Most charities benefit from less complexity in impact measurement, not more. So, what can you do to make impact measurement simpler?
Here are three tips:
1. Ask yourself “why?”
Why do you want to measure your impact? There are many reasons why it is important to measure your impact, first and foremost to learn and improve the way you do things, so you can increase your positive impact on the world. But in my experience, the conversation is often sparked by an internal or external incentive. For example, accountability towards a funder, a question from a trustee, or the wish to illustrate your differentiating factor for fundraising purposes. Being honest with yourself about your goals can help you to scope out what and how to measure – preventing you from wanting to measure everything and making sure that what you arrive at is useful for you and your organisation.
2. Talk to your funders
Funders are increasingly interested in impact measurement. If you have multiple funders, like most charities do, this can mean having to measure your impact in different ways, alongside reporting in different formats and frequencies. This increases the complexity of your impact measurement. My advice: talk to your funders. Tell them what you are already measuring and reporting on and suggest other ways to report back to them – ways that are useful to you. Open-up the conversation on impact measurement with them – often a lot is possible. Moreover, funders can also contribute knowledge of existing evidence, for example, from other grantees or literature research they have done. Incorporating existing evidence can help you make better choices about what to measure with your finite resources.
3. Choose the right methods
Choose methods that are proportionate to your aims and resources. NPC’s five types of data provides guidance on frequency and methods to collect different types of data. But don’t just implement a new process or measurement tool to answer your evaluation question(s). Be creative – there might already be ways for you to measure your impact. Is there an existing survey you could add a question to? Can you ask frontline staff about changes they observe – for example during an impact measurement day once a quarter? Or can you survey a representative sample, instead of asking every beneficiary? It’s worth spending time on finding the right method. Have a brainstorm with your colleagues or contact experts for advice – thinking it through up front will save you a lot of complexity later!
Years of experience in impact measurement have taught me that when in doubt, you should go for the simple solution. A simple approach with results you understand is worth a lot more than a complex approach with results you do not understand. You can always add more complexity later, as your impact practice evolves.
As a charity ourselves, it is our mission at NPC to help the social sector to maximise its social impact. If you’d like to find out more about how we can help, get in touch.