Keep it simple, but make it work

Keep it simple, but make it work

Posted 13th February 2019

A reminder of the what, why, how and when of impact management.

By Dr. Adam Richards, Projects, Research & Training Manager at Social Value UK

I’m often asked which the best tool is to measure social impacts. When I ask what they mean, people usually say they want to know which is the easiest to use. I get this, impact measurement has the potential to be something that is the reserve of specialists – those that have the time to understand the language that can seem too technical and removed from what we are doing day-to-day. But it shouldn’t be – and in my opinion to solve this, we need to look at why we should be measuring impacts in the first place.

When I’m working with people to understand this world of social impacts, I often start with a question I will ask you now – do your activities work perfectly for everyone? If I ever hear anyone say yes to this question, I guess I will have to deal with that, but I doubt I ever will.

So, if what we do is not perfect, there is room for improvement – and in fact there always will be. The world and situations keep changing, and the day we stop adapting is the day we die, or perhaps more realistically, move further away from providing services that meet the needs of the people they intend to support.

This is the purpose of impact measurement – yes, it can help us measure our impact (we will have one!), but it is more about the management of those impacts. Here we go again with that language you may say – but all we mean by management is seeing what works for people and doing more of it if we can, and identifying what doesn’t work for others, and changing so it is more effective. That is impact management, and I am sure you do it already.

So that’s the what/why of impact management, but this post is about keeping it simple, and we need to think about the how – how do we do this when we are often not experienced and even more often, cash-strapped and working really hard to support people.

I’ve highlighted before the 10 impact questions that we should ask in order to manage impacts – and around the world, different organisations and projects are coming together around a shared vision of these questions. I urge you to look at these, but please don’t get overwhelmed by them. Start small if you need to – just ask some of the questions or ask them to only one group of stakeholders (sorry, people!) the first time you do it, and roll it out bit by bit. This is the who of impact management – making sure we give people who are affected by our work the opportunities to be involved in telling us what has changed for them – be it positive or negative.

The key to being able to change how we do things (remember you said you aren’t perfect) to improve the impacts of our work, is to make sure we are asking the right people the questions that will help us. And doing this regularly enough to influence our work – the when of impact management.

Some of the tools that are out there can be really helpful, but they often tend to focus on asking if we have achieved our goal.  These might be the easiest tools, and if this is all we ask, yes you might be able to use this to gain important funding – but you will be unlikely to see what can be done better. And if we understand only a few important things, we can do both – attract more funding and see how we can work with people to positively change their lives even more (and this should make you even more attractive for funding).

I also bet that you are doing some of this already. We need to understand how different people based on certain characteristics (segments of people) that could be things such as their age, gender, or levels of support from others, experience different changes (outcomes) and how important these changes are to them (value). When we understand these key ingredients, we can use this information to help us target our efforts to create more impact – creating more positive and valuable outcomes for people. And by the way, valuing does not have to use money as a way of doing this – ask people to say how important different changes are on a scale of 1 to 10, it can be so powerful to hear their voices!

There are plenty of examples out there of organisations measuring impacts, but not enough stories about how we use this to make our work even better, and I am convinced many are doing it – just not necessarily using the same language of impact management. I am very fortunate to be involved in work that is doing this – so if you want to see some in action have a look at the FRC Group and also the Big Lottery funded project managed by Mantell Gwynedd/Social Value Cymru that is working with 27 social enterprises to measure and manage impacts.

So, yes let’s keep impact management as simple as needs to be, but make sure it works not just for funders, but also the very people your activities are designed to support.