Impact management is a state of mind!

Impact management is a state of mind!

Posted 7th November 2016

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

There’s a slight change in the air… You may have heard it whispered on the grapevines… “Impact Management” is the phrase on everyone’s lips. No longer are people talking about impact measurement. Now, the word on the street is ‘impact management’! Now this may seem like a very subtle change and perhaps not one that warrants a blog. However, I do want to pick up on this nuance in language. I do think it’s worth a blog and I do think I’m justified in feeling quite excited about it. I want to share with you why this could be the start of a significant shift in thinking and practice for the social sector.

Look up measurement in the dictionary and it’s defined as “the act of measuring something”; “the size, length, or amount of something”; and; “a unit or system of measuring”. That sounds about right. For years we’ve all been fixated on the measurement of social impact. Is this the right way to measure an ‘outcome’? What’s the best tool/system for measuring this outcome? Look how much impact we’ve had this year?!

In truth, when I walk into a room and say “Impact measurement” people’s eyes roll, there are groans or if I’m lucky perhaps a polite resigned sigh. “Yes we do it.” But ‘it’ has become a chore, in many instances; measurement is seen as something that has to be done. It’s part of the charade of proving impact to ensure funding continues. For so many; ‘measurement’ and collecting information has become an onerous and often meaningless task.

What difference will a shift in language make?

So why am I excited that swapping measurement for management will be any different? Back to the dictionary… Management is defined as “The process of dealing with or controlling things”. Whilst I don’t love the word ‘control’, this immediately sounds much more practical and worthwhile. No longer are we measuring for the sake of measuring. Management to me means ‘making decisions’ and let’s throw in another M word: maximising a situation. So perhaps the new questions will be: ‘how can we have more impact?’ or ‘are we creating the most impact we can with the resources we have?’

If I walk into a room and say words like ‘agile’, ‘iterative design process’ and (wait for it…) ‘pivot’ people’s eyes light up! (OK it helps if the room is full of ‘lean start up’ types or those who are comfortable with a culture of change). The lean start up movement is all about using information to make decisions about design. Let’s build something, collect information to see if this is working, learn from it and re-design. If you read Eric Reis (whose book the Lean start-up has achieved almost biblical status amongst entrepreneurs) the emphasis is on finding one or two bespoke metrics (not standardised) that can quickly give you the information you need to validate your model or help you re-design to make sure you are maximising your success. This is management, not just measurement.

OK, before you typecast me with full on hipster beard and shout “Oi! You’re not in silicon valley now mate!” let’s just root this in the context of the social sector: UK charities and social enterprises. I think it’s completely possible and the time is right for these social purpose organisations to start adopting a ‘management’ approach to impact. (Check out Acumen’s recent Lean Data initiative.) Success to a charity or a social enterprise will not be measured with financial profit but that doesn’t stop them from behaving in the same way: using information to inform decisions about programme design to maximise their social impact. This is management.

The crowd who are sick and tired of collecting information for measurement sake are understandably bored. Nothing ever comes of this data collection. A (soon to be published) piece of research from Social Value UK finds that most organisations do nothing with the impact information they’ve collected. What if suddenly staff at charities and social enterprises were collecting information that was being used to inform decisions and change the way services are delivered? I reckon it wouldn’t seem like a chore anymore.

Isn’t it easier said than done?

Quick wins?

There are some small changes that charities and social enterprises can do very easily that can make a big difference: Make data collection less formal. It’s the form filling, questionnaires and rigidity that kills it. Start having conversations. Regularly sit down with beneficiaries (and other people who are affected by your work) and ask them simple questions like:

What has changed for you? Was that expected? Has anything else happened? What did that lead to? Out of all of these changes, which is the most important to you? Would that have happened anyway? Who else has helped with this?

Collect the results of these conversations and discuss them at team meetings! Regularly. It won’t be long until you have a rich picture of the changes that are happening (good and bad) and what’s important to people and probably how you can change things to make it better. This to me is management.

If anyone says they don’t have the time or the resources to do that, they’re talking nonsense. Charities and social enterprises should be talking to their stakeholders and they should be having internal staff meetings. The new questions may lead to some uncomfortable answers but let’s face it – asking beneficiaries to complete mundane questionnaires is equally as uncomfortable. Trust me I’ve been there.

This doesn’t sound very rigorous?

Perhaps it’s time we stopped worrying about rigour when it comes to impact measurement. The parallels with highly rigorous academic evaluation are not healthy and if you look at businesses; low levels of rigour is used frequently to support decisions. (Low levels of rigour often better than nothing) As someone one said to me… “it’s about enough precision for the decision”

I don’t think my funder will like this!

You’d be surprised. Most investors I’ve spoken to would love to see a ‘management’ approach by their investees. Access Foundation and Power to Change have recently launched an Impact Management Programme that we are very excited about being part of. Bridges Ventures are a world leading impact investor and have recently published a report titled ‘More than Measurement, A practitioner’s journey to Impact Management.’ And it was a grant maker Nominet Trust that have done some excellent work around lean social metrics and instilled a mantra of: ‘a learning organisation is an effective organisation’. I encourage more funders/investors to be bold enough to move away from shared measurement frameworks and look for evidence of their investments collecting useful information, being agile and responsive to change. (Let’s talk about aggregation another day.)

If I was an investor, above anything else, I would want to know that my investees are collecting information that is useful. Perhaps the only metric I would be interested in is “How many changes have you made to your service/product based on impact information?”

I am genuinely excited about a shift to a more management approach to collecting impact information. For the measurement professionals and geeks out there (myself included) there are some technical changes required around what questions to ask, how to analyse qualitative information and then extrapolate that with quantitative data. Rest assured, those blogs will be coming over the next few months. The key thing is that impact management is ultimately about creating a culture within an organisation. A culture that is brave enough to ask the tough questions, listen to stakeholders and embrace change. Impact Management is a state of mind.


Find out more about the work SVUK are doing with NPC and other partners: NCVO/CES, SEUK, SIB, Young Foundation and Impetus PEF by subscribing to the Access Impact newsletter.