People often get put off setting or measuring outcomes because long term change takes time, making it hard to measure. But it’s still possible to evidence smaller changes along the way. Set realistic outcomes that can be achieved in the time you have. When it comes to longer term change, focus less on ‘attribution’ (how do we know it was us who made the difference) and more on ‘contribution’ (how did our work contribute to the impact).
It’s important to remember that one size does not fit all. If you want to use off-the-shelf evaluation tools, make sure they will really give you what you need. If they were not designed to measure the same outcomes and indicators that you are working towards, develop your own evaluation methods and tools. What the tools might lose in terms of being tried and tested, they gain from being relevant to your work – and accessible to the people you work with.
Start by being fundamentally clear on what you are trying to achieve and therefore measure. Clear outcomes and indicators help avoid the most common evaluation pitfalls. The language of outcomes and evaluation gets confusing, so keep it simple:
- Start with the situation, need, problem or aspiration you want to address e.g. carers don’t have access to information about their rights
- Think about who or what you are making a difference to e.g. carers
- Identify what will change e.g. access to information
- Use words that are about change (if you are successful, there will be more or less of something, something will have increased, improved, reduced etc.) e.g. improved
Most charities’ outcomes are ‘soft’ and intangible. It helps to break them down into smaller measures or indicators. Unlike most outcomes, indicators are inherently specific and measurable. Ask yourself ‘If we achieved the outcome, what would it look like in practice? What would be happening that wasn’t happening before? What would have stopped?’. This takes time, but it’s worth it. Indicators are your friends – they help you to gather the right information in the right ways. They help with analysis, making sense of data and letting you build up a picture of the difference you have made. They help structure reports.
With the right indicators, it will be easier to gather and present data from different sources. This minimises ‘evaluation fatigue’ for the people you work with and strengthens the credibility of your evidence.
When it comes to writing reports, save time by doing analysis first and identifying what you want to say. For structure and brevity, ask yourself:
- ‘What’ – what information do you have? What do you want to say?
- ‘So what’ – what does the information mean? How should it be interpreted?
- ‘What then?’ – what are the implications of the information? What should happen next?
Short reports take longer to write, so do your thinking before you start writing. What is the story you want to tell – what was the context or starting point? What happened along the way (including challenges)? What difference was made? What was learned? What will be done differently in future?
Charity sustainability is not just about survival, it’s about making a lasting difference. Sustainable impact happens when we help increase independence, share ownership of an issue, influence others and share learning about what works.
- Encourage independence and ownership
The best way to make a lasting difference is to make sure that the people (or issues) you support need you less in future. Full independence isn’t always possible or desirable. But have you done everything you can to help people strengthen their support networks, take their next steps and increase their independence? Many non-profit organisations talk about hoping to ‘do themselves out of a job’ by fulfilling their mission. But how close are you to making this rhetoric a reality, and how comfortable are you with it?
- Increase influence and capacity
Ironically, two of the biggest risks to sustainability are unchecked growth and mission drift. You need to be focused and responsible enough to accept that some issues or projects are not your ‘core business’. Sometimes there are more appropriate organisations to take a project forward. Where there aren’t, you still need to think carefully before filling the void.
One of the ways you can make a lasting difference is to improve other organisations’ understanding of, and commitment to, your work, issues or client groups. Sustainability is about impact, not just projects. For some organisations, improving other services’ policy and practice is an important sustainability goal in its own right.
- Share learning
In recent years, the trend has been for work to be funded or commissioned not just for the activities carried out, or even the outcomes achieved, but for the learning that is generated. How can you contribute to other people’s learning about what works?
Even when things end, learning can help to build a bridge to the future. Indeed, sharing and preserving learning are sometimes the only way to ensure a lasting difference. For example, projects or models that wind up (e.g. due to lack of funding) can be more easily resurrected if key learning has been preserved. And to plan or fund a new project you must be able to evidence the need for it.
This timeline, taken from the free Lasting Difference toolkit, identifies other steps you can take, wherever you are in your organisation’s or project’s lifecycle.
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Brand new for 2020, Charity Survival and Sustainability is a one-day workshop taking place on Tuesday 7 April to help you understand, assess, prioritise and implement strategies to tackle sustainability. You will even receive one copy of Graeme’s book – Making a Lasting Difference.