The long-term trend across the charity sector is for funders, decision makers and the public to have increasing expectations that charities must produce evidence of the impact they create. I wanted to share some of the insights we’ve gained from our work with charities from across the country.
Many charities struggle with impact for a host of reasons. In our experience, the challenges charities face fall into three main areas:
- The main challenge for charities is that they want to be able to demonstrate the difference they make to their beneficiaries and wider society. In other words, charities increasingly need to evidence the impact of their work in order to remain viable.
- Secondly, organisations want to be able to improve the effectiveness of what they do and the efficiency with which they do it. Smart charities don’t just demonstrate the value of the work they’ve already undertaken but also use the opportunity to ensure that the next time is even better.
- Less obviously, charities need to make sure the evidence they produce works with their organisational strategy and supports their financial strategy. High-performing charities use their impact evidence to shape their strategic decisions, influence decision-makers and secure future funding.
In order to meet these challenges and make use of the opportunities each kind of challenge presents, organisations need to weigh up what level of resources are reasonable to commit to impact assessment (in terms of staff time and budgets) given the size of their project/organisation and what they need the evidence they produce to do for their organisation.
Of course, if you’re starting from a place where you’re two and a half years into a three year project and no budget is available to support your impact work then your choices are very different from an organisation considering how to plan impact assessment into their next fundraising bid for their new project idea. Either way, the first step is to develop a clear sense of what you’d like your evidence to do for your organisation in the long-term and what it could realistically achieve for you in the short to medium-term.
A great way to improve your approach to impact is to start by articulating how the activities you undertake lead to changes for stakeholders. For projects that are already underway, you might find it easier to start with a list of the activities you are undertaking for the project and then to map how this leads to changes for your beneficiaries and other stakeholders.
For projects that are still in the planning stages, it is often easier to start with the overall impact you are looking to achieve and to work backwards from there to determine what you need to do in order to create changes (or outcomes) that lead to the aspired impact.
For most organisations, developing this understanding of how the organisation does or could create impact is usefully captured in a theory of change – essentially a visual representation of how inputs (pre-requisites for the work to occur) lead to outputs (activities undertaken that can be monitored) which in turn lead to changes (or outcomes) that give rise to impacts (broader or systemic changes).
A theory of change may seem dauntingly complicated at first. Bright Ideas has worked with a range of organisation on their impact approach from volunteer-led community organisations to major national charities and regardless of the size of the organisation, it’s surprising how quickly a team begins to get into the swing of it when people start sharing stories of how their organisation or project makes a difference and getting this down on paper.
Remember that your organisation’s approach to evidence can develop over time and the learning you get from undertaking evaluation processes can help you to ensure it runs even more smoothly in the future. We frame our approach to impact as a cycle to encourage people to forget about the pressure to find the ‘right answer’ or to attain perfection. Instead, we see impact as part of the broader organisational development process. The key is to start from where your organisation is right now and to refine your approach incrementally.
Bright Ideas has developed an approach that can help organisations structure their approach to evaluation and self-assess their progress towards being impact leaders. More information and free downloads are available on the Bright Ideas Consulting site (www.brightideasconsulting.co.uk).