Comparing apples with bananas: Charity social impact measurement

Get your head around this insightful practise.

Charity social impact measurement can be insightful, thought provoking and essential in looking at how a charitable organisation allocates resources better. But it can equally be a frustrating exercise, taking a lot of time and resource. It can also sometimes feel like a box-ticking exercise.

So what is charity social impact measurement and how can it work for your organisation?

In essence, social impact measurement seeks to gather information about your organisation, what it does well, what positive change it brings to how many people’s lives over a particular period of time, and seeks to articulate that for one of a number of stakeholders:

  • These could be for your organisation itself – you may want to rank or benchmark the amount of time and resource you spend on different projects internally, based on their impact.
  • It could be for the public – if you are using public funds or accepting donations then Joe Public may want to know how well you are spending it.
  • It could be other funders, such as major donors – they can choose to give money to you, or a range of other noble causes, so what you want to articulate to them is that your cause is the one they really need give to.
  • Finally, it could be to the beneficiaries – who may want to fully understand the services you provide, the processes you follow and outcomes you generate.

The difficulty in measurement comes when you hear a lot of jargon and need to do a lot of data collection.

Break down the jargon.

Impact measurement is really about asking two questions: (a) what do we achieve as an organisation today? and (b) what could we have achieved otherwise if we used the money for something else?

The difference between (a) and (b) is your organisation’s impact.

The difficulty comes when you compare different types of projects. For example, if a donor had the choice of funding an animal shelter, or a homeless project, which should be choose? How do you compare two completely different items? Should you even try to compare them?

What if the donor could choose between a homeless project for the disabled, and one for young people? Are these more comparable? If so, how? We could seek to assign numbers to the positive outcomes produced, such as the impact on mental health, social problems, productivity for the economy and potential for paying taxes. So-called “second-round” effects are also important, which refer to impact not the direct beneficiary but to indirect beneficiaries. For example, getting a homeless person back on their feet has positive repercussions not just for them, but their family.

Sometimes, numbers aren’t the key to measuring impact.

Qualitative analysis can be just as powerful. In fact, when communicating impact to beneficiaries or to the wider public, explaining using stories makes the positive outcomes come alive more than describing ornate series of numbers.

Keep your impact measurement proportionate and relevant to the audience. If you are a small charity, keep your analysis simple. If you are a bigger charity that does multiple strands of work, maybe measuring impact is another way of comparing how well these different strands are performing, relative to each other. And remember, each funder may also have their own “house view” in how analysis should be presented.

To find out more about fundraising, visit our dedicated page