How do I approach impact measurement if I’m starting or scaling a project?

Rachel Tait shares five suggestions to people thinking about impact measurement for a new or growing social project, charity or social enterprise.

Published:16th November 2020

A couple of weeks ago I delivered an impact measurement workshop and had individual chats with several grantees from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Ideas and Pioneers Fund. The Fund provides grants of up to £15,000 to support people with a vision of a better society to explore their ideas for change. My workshop and 1-1 chats focused on impact measurement. So the grantees and I explored what they can do to plan, understand, communicate, and improve their impact. Everyone was at different stages and tackling different social issues in different ways, so I focused on three steps that are useful to everyone:

  • First, Develop a proof of concept or theory of change
  • Next, Look at the existing evidence
  • Then test, learn about and improve your approach

As I look back on the discussions I had with different grantees over the last couple of weeks, here are five suggestions to others who might be thinking about impact measurement for a new or growing project…

1. It’s tempting to think about methods, but make sure you’re clear on what you want to find out

Several people wanted to talk about creative methods for capturing feedback or gathering evidence about the difference they’ve made. But we then discussed how tricky it is to choose methods if you’re not quite sure what questions you’re trying to answer about your work. That brings me to my next two suggestions…

2. Take yourself through a theory of change process

A lot of people imagine a diagram when they hear ‘theory of change’. I think the best thing about a theory of change approach is the questions you need to ask yourself. You zoom out and think about the big picture, then zoom in to your specific idea. You can do this on your own, but ideally you’d get a few people together. Some of the questions include ‘What’s the problem I’m trying to address? What’s my long-term vision for how things could be if this problem was tackled? Who else is tackling this problem?’ You could start with these simple templates, or really throw yourself into it with NPC’s guide to Theory of change in ten steps.

For example, one of the grantees, Kwame Sekyere, is exploring the potential of a platform that will enable grant makers to work with lawyers to bring forward appeals to criminal convictions and sentences that are likely to be deemed unlawful or excessive, respectively. He’s working in a complex system where there are many other groups and avenues for change, so he’s figured out the specific area in the system in need of funding and has developed clear goals.

3. Think about the five types of data

There are usually five types of data about the people we work with that we can collect and analyse. Outcomes data is on the list of course, but often overlooked are other types like user data (who are we reaching and not reaching? What do we know about them?), engagement data (how are people engaging with our initiatives?) and feedback data (what do people think of our work?). These sorts of routine questions and data are easier to manage than outcomes data and quickly tell you how things are going so you can make little adjustments – which is especially useful during times of rapid change like a global pandemic.

Here’s an example from another grantee. Martin Glover’s Digitspace initiative conducted research in summer 2020 to better understand online accessibility for Deaf people. The findings highlighted key issues and helped Martin decide where to focus his efforts.

4. Trust your gut about what feels feasible and relevant for your impact measurement.

When people asked me about methods or questions, I often say to them, “How would you feel if someone asked you that question after an activity?” or “How would you feel about receiving that survey?”. We can use our own common sense a lot more than we realise. Even better, we can ask the people who might be filling in a survey what they think about it. You can find out more about different methods here.

For example, another grantee, Laurie Oliva, is developing a project with young people, and will test her ideas for surveys, focus groups etc. with some young people to make sure the format and content feels right for them.

5. Talk to your funders about what impact measurement is relevant and realistic for your work

A lot of people’s experience of impact measurement comes from trying to report back to funders or partners about their work… perhaps piecing together bits of evidence to support an outcome that a funder wants to see, while not feeling totally sure whether or not that information is really useful. Checking a funder’s expectations can feel intimidating because they’re the ones with the money. But where possible do discuss your plans with them so that you don’t overpromise or embark on data collection that won’t actually be useful for you.

More impact measurement advice

What is impact practice?

Learn the basics and get our glossary of key terms

Plan your impact

Set your goals and decide what data to collect

Collect data

Methods and tips for collecting useful data

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