Impact Management: A chance to put the reindeer before the sleigh?

Impact Management: A chance to put the reindeer before the sleigh?

Posted 14th December 2017

This is a blog by Social Value UK’s Operations Manager, Ben Carpenter.

They will look back on 2017 and they will say “Ah, the year of ‘impact management” – well, maybe, or maybe it will only be me that says that (to an empty room)! In all seriousness, it has been a real privilege this year to lead Social Value UK’s role in the Impact Management Project; an ambitious social sector collaboration funded by Access Foundation aiming to help organisations get better at impact management. Why? So that they can create more social impact and help diversify their income (so says the theory of change!).

There has been a clear journey for the impact management revellers this year and as cheesy as that sounds let me tear you away from your yule time festivities to talk you through it!

What’s the point of all this measurement?

We began the year running ‘roadshow’ events – rolling in to town and talking about the new ‘term’ on the block; “forget impact measurement, that’s so 2016 – it’s all about impact management now, don’t you know?” Cue, frantic discussions about the differences between measurement and management; “don’t you need to measure in order to manage?”, “Do we really need a new science?” and “Haven’t we all got enough to be doing?”  Yes, no and yes.

Putting our healthy scepticism to one side, this was an important phase: conversations began to move beyond measurement. Rather than worrying too much about the how, we were addressing the why and challenging ourselves; “why do we measure that if we don’t do anything with the data?”. The conversations dared to consider “what if we had no funder to report to? – would we still collect data?”. Thankfully the answers were largely yes! In data terms we might no longer have the cart before the horse (or the sleigh before the reindeers?). We talked passionately about accountability, and how being accountable to your beneficiaries means relentlessly innovating to create the most impact you can (with the resources you have). I wrote a blog that wondered if impact management is a ‘state of mind’. It was a great time to be alive.

Yeah, yeah but how do we do it?

Heady stuff indeed. But once we sobered up we still had some of the old questions; “how do we do impact management?” and “what does it look like?”. Together with Social Enterprise UK we ran co-design workshops that drilled into the detail a bit more. New Philanthropy Capital led an exercise to distil this feedback and turn it into a structure. Impact management does require a specific type of organisational ‘culture’ but it also requires ‘data’ and some ‘planning/systems’. These are the three building blocks of the programme and they’ve proved to be useful areas for organisations to consider as they grapple with impact management.

We continued to hold ‘co-design workshops’ and develop a cohort of organisations across six regions of England. These sessions were passionate and productive. Discussions around ‘data’ led to the identification of five types of data and whilst this may seem like a relatively simple categorisation of ‘data’ it’s provided many eureka moments so far. At SVUK we believe the value of outcomes is an extremely important and powerful subset of the outcome data set. If you are lucky enough to have more than one present under the tree this year, will you be considering the relative importance (or value) of each?

When discussing ‘data’ we’ve forced the questions; “why do you collect this data”? or “what decisions can you make with this data (or information)? We made a rule: “Imagine you have no funder – you only collected information to help you improve your services and make changes”.

Are we already doing impact management?

The organisations we have worked with have all been at the beginning of their thinking about impact management. Whilst many are small, all of them enter this subject with an air of trepidation – as you might approach a long overdue check-up with the dentist. However, it’s been great to turn this trepidation into an optimism and even a confidence about impact management. It might not be so painful after all… Turns out we’re kind of doing it already?

I firmly believe that all of the organisations we have engaged with are continuously making changes to their services. “It’s just what we do” is the common response. Of course, it is, these are people who care, who want to provide a good service so they are already in the habit of continuous improvement. In our most recent round of events we’ve been collecting examples of these changes and then asking what data (or information) they’ve used before making that change. This is impact management and maybe we’re already doing it? I wrote a blog about this too and suggested that all we need to do is recognise it, do more of it, in a systematic way and use more data to support these decisions.

What does the future hold?

There is still lots to do. Whilst it turns out organisations are (sometimes) good at collecting:

  1. user data
  2. engagement data
  3. feedback data and are using this to make changes

They are not so good at the other types of data:

  1. outcomes data
  2. impact data.

We can help organisations with this; NPC are creating some online resources and we have established a network of peer learning groups.

But you cannot keep the white elephant, in our case the ‘funder’, out of the room for long. Despite our best efforts to imagine a world where funders don’t dictate data requirements, it never lasts. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is far too common to hear that organisations are prioritising data that their funder wants before considering what data would be useful for them.

I do not want to have a go at funders (they deserve a good Christmas too) – after all, their demands are motivated by accountability. So, rather than get angry with funders this Christmas, let’s turn this into a positive. The organisations that are successful are the ones that set the data agenda with their funders. Organisations that can show they are in control of their data will soon earn the respect and trust of a funder.

My wish for 2018 is that organisations prioritise the data they need to improve their programmes. That means creating a system that works for them. A system that collects all types of data and tracks how it informs decision making. The system needs to be proportionate and by that I mean the data collected is good enough for the decision it informs. An organisation that can do this has put the data sleigh firmly in place and the reindeers are dashing merrily through the snow, and I didn’t even mention the man with the white beard.

Equally, we have more reasons to be cheerful;