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How to Tackle Impact Measurement: Five Approaches for Small Charities

| Updated August 12, 2018

Tried and tested ways to get going on impact measurement

Originally published: December 2017 | Last reviewed: December 2017

Too many small charities are failing to measure the impact of their services, according to research by the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI) — despite being aware of the benefits it would bring. The FSI’s 2017 survey found that only 52 percent of respondents measure the impact for nearly all their services; one fifth said they measure a small proportion and 5 percent don’t measure the impact of any services.

With voluntary income of small charities increasing by just 1 percent in the past four years, FSI’s chief executive Pauline Broomhead says small charities need to “take control of the things [they] can influence.” By measuring and demonstrating their impact, nonprofits can “prove to funders and donors the difference they are making, helping to increase [their] share of funding.”

What's stopping charities from tracking results? FSI’s paper doesn't answer this question, but their most recent skills survey found that skills gaps within small charities contribute to an increased workload and less ability to take on new work. Many organisations see it as "yet another thing we need to think about," as King's College London lecturer and youth worker Tanya de St Croix writes; there's also confusion around what impact measurement actually means, and around the numerous tools and methodologies available.

In addition, the link between demonstrating impact and winning funding can limit its uptake and its usefulness: “[Some charities] see it as a fundraising tool rather than an approach to manage and improve,” says Antonia Orr, chief executive at the Coalition for Efficiency, and therefore “don’t fully take ownership of the impact measurement process.”

There’s no quick and easy solution, but here are some tried and tested approaches to get things off the ground.

Keep it proportional

Small organisations need to focus on the right metrics, and to keep this in proportion with the scale of the work they do. New Philanthropy Capital's (NPC) four pillar approach (mapping your theory of change, prioritising what to measure, choosing the level of evidence and selecting sources and tools) can help keep you on track. For example, when choosing what outcomes to measure, NPC advises selecting those that are directly influenced by your work, affordable to measure and able to produce credible data.

The latter has been a key lesson for Street League, which uses sports programmes to build young people's skills and employability. The charity recently launched an online impact dashboard so that funders, staff and the public can track metrics in real-time. Three members of staff rigorously monitor the data gathered, for example through monthly spot checks (rejecting any claims that can't be backed up with evidence, such as a payslip to prove someone has started working). But Street League believes smaller charities can still ensure their reported outcomes are solid by working at a smaller or simpler scale. “Even a spot check on data every six months is better than nothing,” says Street League’s head of marketing Sara McCraight. “Try to learn from what you’re doing — that’s what we were doing seven years ago.”

There are hundreds of tools and resources (many free) available at the Inspiring Impact hub, set up by Inspiring Impact to help organisations improve their impact practice. This UK-wide collaborative programme recommends starting with Measuring Up, a step-by-step self-assessment tool to help identify the areas you can improve and the sorts of resources that will help you do so. It’s designed for all kinds of charitable organisations, social enterprises and funders, and there are three versions available, including one for organisations with an income of up to £100,000.

Get outside help

Impact measurement for small charities is hard, says Orr, particularly as leaders struggle to find the time and headspace to make it a priority. But it's not impossible, especially with outside support: “In my experience, the CEO needs someone to hold their hand and help them get started, someone who can facilitate the thinking process and ask the tricky questions,” she says.

For smaller organisations, external consultancy can be costly. But targeted support is available for free, including through Measuring the Good, a joint initiative between Coalition for Efficiency and Volunteering Matters. The programme uses skilled volunteers, who act as independent facilitators helping charities to embed a culture of impact measurement, and to better understand and communicate the impact of their services. In an external evaluation of Measuring the Good, charities said that the physical presence of an external and neutral person working with them helped them to stay focused, complete ‘homework’ and meet deadlines.

Other pro bono support in impact measurement is available from Pro Bono Economics and the Operational Research Society.

Train your teams

There’s plenty of training out there to help get staff up to speed: check out NCVO, New Philanthropy Capital, Evaluation Support Scotland or Community Evaluation Northern Ireland. As part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Small Charity Training Programme, the FSI will also be running heavily subsidised or free training and webinars on impact measurement during 2018.

The challenge is following up once back at your desk. But putting in the legwork can mean avoiding costly tools or consultancy fees, since organisations can implement new processes themselves. The Choir with No Name, for example, was able to apply lessons from a two-day course by designing simple questionnaires for beneficiaries, as Sophie Hudson reports in the Guardian.

"We learnt that [measuring impact] doesn't have to be rocket science," chief executive Marie Benton tells MissionBox, "and that asking a few simple questions at a specific point in the year helps us to prove that what we are doing still works. If results aren't quite as shiny as before, it helps us to reflect on what has gone wrong or what we could do better."

The FSI’s training is practical and toolkit-based, says head of projects Conchita Garcia, "which allows space to start developing impact measurement frameworks within the course itself," making it more likely that participants will be able to implement what they've learned. For example, delegates finish the ‘Demonstrating your Impact’ course having worked on their own draft impact measurement framework.

Talk to your peers

Think beyond just workshops, though. The Centre for Youth Impact, set up to advance impact measurement in youth work and services for young people, has found that training alone “has really minimal impact, for lots of reasons,” according to Pippa Knott, head of networks. “How and whether impact measurement gets done has at least as much to do with how people feel about it and how the organisation supports it, as their knowledge and skills.”

The Centre has created nine peer networks across England for organisations to share experience of impact measurement in a safe, non-judgemental space, which Knott says is a much more effective way to learn. The networks have prompted positive feedback from participants.

“There are very few neutral advisers in this space; there are lots of consultants with something to sell. So rather than being sold solutions, you’re alongside people facing the same problem, who have possibly started to try out solutions,” says Knott.

Organisations working with young people can join The Centre for Youth Impact's networks. Charities in other sectors can join online groups such as Inspiring Impact Network, Social Impact Exchange and SROI Exchange on LinkedIn, or the impact measurement group on CharityConnect; or see if your local voluntary action service provides a network closer to home.

Make it everyone’s job

How do you get staff (and volunteers) to start tracking what’s working? Including monitoring, evaluation and learning in their job descriptions can be an effective way to encourage this, says Orr. Children's charity SELFA is one organisation doing this; they are also discussing the possibility of performance-related pay relating to compliance with their new systems.

Trustees can also contribute to each stage of the process in strategic and practical ways — NPC provides a helpful breakdown of what trustees need to know about impact.

Crucial to Street League's success in its journey to transparent reporting — after seven years of work — has been strong leadership.

“This journey was led and championed by the board, chief executive and senior management team. This leadership means that it is a priority for the organisation and is a key part of our organisation’s strategy,” says Street League’s head of marketing Sara McCraight. The chief executive reiterates the message to staff that transparency is part of their job, and the quality of data gathered by frontline staff is monitored so they can be supported or offered further training if needed.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

References

The Guardian: Measuring impact: a guide to resources and tools by Nicola Slawson (2015)

The Centre for Youth Impact: Questioning the youth impact agenda by Tania De St Croix (2017)

Zoe Amar Communications: Street League’s real time data digital solution to the annual report (2017)

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