Charities are all on different journeys – how can we talk about impact in a way that acknowledges this?

In a ‘previous life’ I used to work as a researcher. One of my projects was about collating evidence-based practices in the area of child and youth policy and promoting their uptake in the social sector at the national and EU-level. Impact as a topic (which is not the same as talking about evidence-based practices, but related to it) featured heavily in this.

Whenever our team of researchers presented the project at conferences, there were very mixed reactions to it. Many academics liked it and supported it. Many charities and other NGOs or arms-length bodies were already using evidence-based practices themselves. They wanted to exchange information and improve. Others had never heard about the topic and were interested in learning more.

A two-class system of charities?

But we also encountered plenty of people who either didn’t want to engage with the topic at all or even rejected it outright. And they had good reasons. They felt that mainstreaming the use of evidence-based practices would lead to a ‘class system’ for charities. Those who can adapt will be on the top. They can either invest in using evidence-based practices or have capacity to do high-profile evaluations that can demonstrate the effectiveness and impact of what they are already doing. The argument followed that funding would flow to them – based on investment in systems and ability to prove results.

Those who can’t invest in the same way or offer services which do not fit into existing frameworks and can be aligned with approved practices might lose out. From their point of view, promoting evidence-based practices was just leading to a devaluation of their work in the long run.

Another argument was that it would lead to a standardisation of approaches, robbing charities of their distinctiveness and potentially eroding their core work, values and personalised commitment to beneficiaries. For many, the ‘what’ they are doing was also the essence of ‘why’ they exist in the first place. Changing that might alter their whole identity as organisations, and in turn, the way they interacted with the people they served.

Others talked about the changes in their communities that they thought their work delivered. But it was hard for them to boil it down to a set of individual measures or to take on more complex practices that deviated from their work.

Resistance to conversations around impact can come from an honest place

Some might argue these people were just driven by motivations of organisational survival. Some might accuse them of being resistant to improving how to help beneficiaries, and just wishing to keep on doing what you have always done. Change is hard – doing more of the same is easier. There are surely organisations out there who behave like this, but I would argue that they’re in the minority. For many it is about different things.

In these conversations, there was a tension between identity and a feeling that funders’ money and a technocratic approach to working with humans just colonises a space which had been previously occupied by people that are deeply committed to helping people in their own communities.

They felt an external force was telling them that what they were doing was ‘wrong’ and that they needed to change. Funding would be the tool to force them to do so. Funding might dry up, funders might enter and leave communities, experts might move to other topics – but charities were always there and committed to stay. They were deeply involved in the lives of beneficiaries and their surroundings.

What’s missing in the conversation?

I personally still subscribe to the notion that when working with children and young people (or any vulnerable people) we have an obligation to use the best approaches available. Charities can have a profound impact on beneficiaries’ lives. At a bare minimum this impact should not be negative – ideally it is a positive impact and this impact should be as good as possible. The big question is: how do we get everybody on board? We need to improve the conversation, and take into account the realities in which charities operate in. The wider topic of impact is too often discussed without reference to capacity and context. We need ‘impact with a human face’.

The majority of charities are run by volunteers, with limited or almost no resources. They are the backbone of many communities. Pluralism is at the heart of having healthy communities. This includes the existence of a wide range of organisations where we don’t expect activities to be justified on the basis of complex evaluations. Having a space for people to just get together along their own priorities is a value in itself. We also know this type of civic activity has an intangible but massive value, and when it breaks down, a community is in trouble.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be afraid of constantly asking ourselves – do we make a difference? And how do we know? Sometimes, this means tracking outcomes and impact rigidly. For example, if a charity runs a literacy programme for disadvantaged children, they probably have an organisational need to make sure that the program works for the children involved.

How to make the conversation more applicable to more organisations

It may be that the terminology and language around impact is a barrier to further understanding. Ultimately, for me, impact should be about understanding the difference you make, sharing best practice and using that learning to improve. I’d argue that framing the conversation this way might mean more charities engage with the idea. Once people have a positive experience around learning they will soon talk about change and adapting.

We can’t forget about the critical role of funders, methodology and capacity building here. Ask charities to submit tons of data in different formats mostly relevant to funders – they might start to associate impact measurement with administrative burden. But if done proportionately and flexibly, funders asking ‘how do you know you’ve made a difference’ and giving grantees tools to help do so could drive better practice. They could also be empowered to share their knowledge with other charities encouraging them to incorporate new approaches. The best funders will recognise that everybody is on a different trajectory and doesn’t have to end up at the same finishing line.