Best practices for impact reporting
Originally published: October 2017
If you're measuring your charity's impact, you should also be reporting it.
When done effectively, impact reporting helps beneficiaries, funders, volunteers and other supporters to better understand your organization. It helps staff and trustees to stay focused on the results they are working towards. And it allows both your own organization and those outside to learn about what works and what doesn’t work, while promoting a culture of accountability and transparency.
Impact reporting can also be a powerful communications tool. As the authors of "Principles of good impact reporting: For charities and social enterprises" write, it helps charities "shift the prevailing focus away from concerns about administration costs or chief executives’ salaries, and towards what really matters: the difference they make in people’s lives."
Impact reporting, as the guide continues, can come in many forms — for example:
- An impact report, annual report or annual review
- Reports to funders, supporters, investors and commissioners
- Board reports or management information (these readers might require detailed written reports)
- Internal communication with staff and volunteers
- Communication with (and feedback from) beneficiaries
- Fundraising and communications material, such as websites, brochures and leaflets (these might be more selective and use infographics or other visuals)
What should you be saying about impact?
New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a U.K.-based charity think tank and consultancy focused on impact, says that impact reporting should cover the following:
- Need: What’s the issue or problem your charity is trying to address?
- Activities: What are you doing to address that issue?
- Outcomes: What are the results of these activities?
- Evidence: How do you know you’ve made a difference?
- Lessons learnt: How will you change your work for the better?
How do you know you’re getting it right?
Many charities struggle with what to include and what to leave out, and how best to present their impact data, according to NPC.
"Principles of good impact reporting", the work of a group of organizations (ACEVO, Charity Finance Group, Institute of Fundraising, NCVO, New Philanthropy Capital, Small Charities Coalition, Social Enterprise UK and the Social Return on Investment Network), aims to guide charities and social enterprises on what and how to communicate. Their six principles state that impact reporting should be:
Clear — the reader can quickly and easily understand the organization through a coherent narrative that connects charitable aims, plans, activities and results. Think about how you structure your report, and make it clearer by avoiding jargon or replacing long lists of figures or explanations with visuals.
Accessible — relevant information can be found by anyone who looks for it, in a range of formats suitable for different stakeholders. Consider your specific audience: what do they need or want to know?
Transparent — reporting is full, open and honest. That means considering what hasn’t worked, as well as the achievements.
Accountable — reporting tells stakeholders, partners and beneficiaries what they need to know, and provides reassurance.
Verifiable — claims about impact are backed up appropriately allowing others to review. This can range from informal stakeholder feedback to an external audit. NPC recommends using both "numbers and stories" — in other words, a range of qualitative and quantitative evidence for your impact.
Proportional — the level and detail of reporting reflects the size and complexity of the organization and the complexity of the changes it is seeking. It’s fine to be brief, if appropriate, or summarize detailed reports for certain audiences.
What are some good examples?
To get an idea of what good impact reporting looks like, have a look at these impact reports from U.K. organizations, recommended by NPC:
Looking for U.S.-specific guidance? Read about impact reporting for nonprofits.
Intrac: Outputs, outcomes and impact (2015)
ACEVO, Charity Finance Group, Institute of Fundraising, NCVO, New Philanthropy Capital, Small Charities Coalition, Social Enterprise UK and Social Return on Investment Network: Principles of good impact reporting: For charities and social enterprises (2012)
New Philanthropy Capital: Result! What good impact reporting looks like by Katie Boswell and Sarah Handley (2016)
New Philanthropy Capital: Impact reporting: What trustees need to know by Sarah Denselow, Sonali Patel (2017)Inspiring Impact: The code of good impact practice (2013)