Measuring Impact in the Third Sector
Recently, Stuart interviewed Social Impact Specialist Matt Wilson (if you haven't listened to the podcast yet catch it here). We wanted to summarise some of Matt's key points to help you hone your monitoring and evaluation processes.
Impact Management Terminology
There is a lot of specialist jargon in the charity sector, and it can sometimes be confusing. Matt clarified these three key words for us in straightforward terms:
This needs to be a numerical measure of how much you have been doing and who with. E.g. 'we've run x youth drop-in evenings, attended by n young people aged between y-z'.
These demonstrate what's changing as a direct result of your actions. Sometimes outcomes are clear to an outsider (e.g. 'somebody struggling with x started attending our programme, and after a course of y sessions was showing visible signs of improvement'), but sometimes measuring outcomes requires us to ask participants how they are feeling compared with how they felt before they began your programme.
Sometimes we can work with individuals whose situations won't improve, for instance those at the end of their lives, or those with deteriorating health conditions. In these cases a measurable outcome is still possible, but this might simply be to improve somebody's quality of life, or to prevent known risks to the group of people in question.
This is a combination of outputs and outcomes, to tell a story about the unique differences you have made as an organisation. E.g. 'the life chances of a specific group in our community are significantly improved because we did x, y and z with them'.
Theory of Change
This term is frequently used in the third sector today, but what is a theory of change? Essentially it is a model to describe how the individuals and groups that we work with respond to the challenges in their lives, and what we are doing to help them.
There are three main parts to the model:
This involves situational analysis: who is our organisation or programme working with?
This stage asks us what we are doing about the challenges these people face?
In this part of the model you need to explicitly link everything you are doing back to the individuals or groups that your organisation is working with, and show how you expect your interventions will make a difference.
See Matt's definition of outcomes above. Think about what tools you will use to measure change – after all, if you don't measure change, you can't report on it. Then identify all the specific indicators of change in your programme participants' lives – if it helps, you can streamline these into short-, medium- and long-term outcomes, though this is not essential.
It can be helpful to try to identify the change mechanisms, or the exact reasons why your interventions are working. This isn't a necessary part of the process, but it can sometimes help to convince funders why your interventions matter and that they could be replicated elsewhere.
Consider what your organisation will do with this data once measured and collected – if you don't report on it, what good is it doing?
Finally, Matt highlighted case studies as an undervalued tool in reporting. If one of your programme participants has experienced a challenging life course but thanks to your organisation has had their life turned around – make sure you share it! Charities make a difference in so many lives, but showing the impact of your work on just one individual can be immensely powerful.
Matt stressed that these transformations are fairly rare, so you shouldn’t overuse the humble case study. But the individuals who experience these turning points often become key to the success of the organisations that helped them – sometimes taking on the role of charity ambassadors – and as a result can drive a great deal of further impact.