How to build a positive relationship with the activity of tracking, measuring, and evidencing impact
‘Measuring impact strikes fear into many across the charity sector.’ This is the first line of a 2014 article in the Guardian, How to measure your impact as a small charity. Why, seven years on, do we still have a fearful relationship with measuring our progress and impact? Is it that for too long the impact we measure has only been used to prove the value of funding provided? What if we turned impact measurement into a tool that could help us make decisions, prioritise our work, discover problems to solve, and understand the true value of our work and how its impact is felt beyond the direct recipients of our value - and across society as a whole?
I hope that this article goes some way to reducing the anxieties that you may feel about measuring the impact of the work that you do, and explaining why this much feared activity can bring so much value to you and your organisation.
Why should we try to build a positive relationship with the activity of tracking, measuring, and evidencing our impact?
Reporting the impact that we make to others has been a big part of working in charities for as long as all of us can remember. We must prove that we add value and positively impact the mission and vision of our organisations. This is a valid reason to consistently measure the impact of our work, but it is not the only one. In a recent workshop for Catalyst I explored the reasons why impact measurement is important. Over the next few paragraphs we’ll explore these a little more.
Measurement helps to light our path
When we track, measure, and evaluate we can continue to learn. Ensuring that each step we take is based on testable assumptions, and information is gained from evaluation of what’s gone before. By understanding what’s happened before, we don’t blindly repeat activity that doesn't bring the necessary impact. In the same way, if we don’t measure and understand how the work we do makes an impact, we could be ignoring the work that brings the impact we desire. Tracking and measuring helps us to focus and prioritise our stretched resources on the things that matter most.
For example, keeping an eye on your web stats can help put resources (staff time, and money) in the right places. If there are pages with lower levels of traffic but a team of staff producing content for them, is that effort really the best use of valuable staff time?
What big questions are you and your organisation facing right now? Take a moment to think about how measuring and evidencing the impact of the work you do might help to answer them, or how it might help you design some tests that could help you to form an answer. Some big questions shared by those that joined me at last week’s workshop can be grouped into key themes; team effectiveness, ways to improve, value for money, shared understanding, and proof that interventions work.
Measurement can help us improve and discover
“There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've evidenced. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.” - Enrico Fermi
When I started my first digital communications role I was fascinated with data and measurement, principally as a way to chart the growth of social media channels, and prove the value I was bringing to the organisation. The surges of joy and confidence I felt seeing a continued uptick on various charts and graphs became, in many ways, addictive. As with all highs, then came the plateau, and with it the challenge for me to understand what these measurements actually meant, and how I could learn from what they were telling me.
In order to improve, I created tiny tests to see what brought more engagement and positive feedback from our audience. I still work in much the same way today when developing a new digital product or reviewing a service. Much like a scientist, I draft a hypothesis - or problem statement - for each test I create, noting what question I am looking to find an answer to, and in what way this will be proved or disproved.
Do it for you, as well as your stakeholders
You may be reading this - as many will - as the solo digital person in your organisation. I’ve been there and I know how tough it can be. It is in some ways more important to measure and evidence the work that’s been done when working as a solo digital person. By tracking progress and evidencing the impact that you are making, you will be creating a bank of (mostly) positive information and proof of progress. Here are a few ways that others record, evidence, and measure the work they’re doing:
- Keep a daily log of the little wins (for your positivity and peace of mind); this could simply be a folder in your email where you keep congratulations, thank yous, and project successes. It may also be in the form of weeknotes, or a bullet journal.
- Set your own monthly and weekly meaningful targets and check in on them
- Connect your work with the bigger picture for the organisation: where does it fit in these goals; how can you track the impact your work makes to them?
- Connect with a peer and hold each other to account - perhaps you might use the Coffee Connections initiative from CAST?
Measuring, tracking, and evidencing is not just for Christmas (or annual reports)
Good evidence and measurement strategies first start with answering:
- Why you are collecting the evidence / measuring impact
- How you’ll collect the data you need to measure and evidence your impact
- What will you do with the results
Each of us will likely have more than one reason to measure and evidence the impact of our work. Many of them have been covered in the first part of this post, but there are likely to be others that I’ve missed. It could be to prove the value of our digital activities, as I referenced in my most recent post for Catalyst. Or it may be to test an assumption, or perhaps to examine how the work you do impacts more widely across our society. It doesn’t matter what your reason/s are - it does however matter that you know your reasons and can communicate them to others.
Much like developing a new digital service or fundraising campaign, how you go about measuring and evidencing very much depends on the problem that you’re looking to solve or the question you hope to answer.
If you are, for example, looking to test an assumption, you would likely need to set yourself a hypothesis. Here’s a great example shared by Julie Dodd on Twitter. In 2020, with many regional fundraising staff on furlough and many others across the organisation feeling the additional burden that the pandemic brought, Julie's team at Parkinson’s UK wanted to explore how they might be able to test the creation of part-time placements without adding too much work for the HR team. For them to measure the impact of the work they did (and see if it worked) they looked at the number of roles opened, and the number of placements taken. As well as this they asked for feedback from those taking up the roles, and the teams they worked in. They worked really quickly and in just four weeks had tested a professional development offer for the organisation that is now a formal scheme within the organisation with more than 20 people completing it so far.
“You can't measure some things directly or accurately (love, for instance), while the precise impact of your activity is hard to calculate when you are trying to change laws or alter public opinion on something like attitudes to disability.” - In the charity sector, impact is everything - The Guardian
If, however, you are looking to evidence your contribution to a wider social problem, the way you measure and what you measure may shift and become less linear. This is an activity often seen in policy and campaigning charities, but I think others can learn from it too. The Maternal Mental Health Alliance explains this far better than I can in their evaluation of the Everyone’s Business Campaign. In the briefing document, they separate the impact (results) with what created that impact (the actions they took); through this they are able to convey the contribution that their actions brought to the political discussion around maternal mental health.
Whether you measure and evidence to learn, improve, and grow, or to prove your worth, one thing remains true. This activity is not one for individuals: it is and should be the collective responsibility of all. What steps will you take to measure, track, and evidence your impact?
Plus: look out for a blog from Dr Lucy Maynard exploring how to measure impact, coming soon!