Impact measurement: Fad or fact of life

By Dr James Magowan

Impact measurement has been a hardy perennial on the agenda of philanthropic conferences and events for a while. Recently, more attention has been focused on the role associations play in supporting foundation impact practice and how they think about their own impact as infrastructure organizations. Thus, it was no surprise that a session was devoted to this topic at the meeting of the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (DAFNE) in Warsaw in January.

I wrote this post to share my experience with the UK Association of Charitable Foundations’ Inspiring Impact program and the overall challenges presented by the topic. Being thrown into a different environment and asked to explain yourself forces one to reflect more critically on what one has done, why, and what one has learned from the experience. So, in that spirit, and as I did at the Warsaw meeting, I offer my thoughts and comments on what has been a lengthy and often complex process.

But first, a little background. As “impact” began to gain traction in the social sector a decade or so ago, interest in and activity around tools and techniques to measure it also began to grow. Indeed, it became something of a specialized area, the preserve of “impact nerds,” with a language all its own. Research conducted by NPC in 2012 revealed that funders play “a critical role in shaping behavior” with respect to impact measurement. At the same time, it was clear to ACF that there was more at stake than tools and techniques, and that consideration was needed around the art rather than the science of impact measurement, on the broader implications for how organizations operate, and on the relationship between funders and grantees. This prompted ACF’s engagement with NPC and organizations representing nonprofits, as well as those with evaluation expertise, leading to the development of an ambitious program, Inspiring Impact, that aims to make good impact practice the norm for charities and social enterprises by 2022.

As an association with a hugely diverse membership, some members were comfortable with the idea, while many perceived it as a distraction or a passing fad. Our first job, therefore, was to explore with members what this was about and what the implications for funders might be. A working group facilitated by a staff member articulated the fundamentals, worked to develop a shared understanding, and ultimately produced a set of impact principles and drivers. (Note, the original language already has changed, with the focus now more on impact practice.) Working with other partners was critical to ensure that we developed a common language and approach, not least of which was a shared definition of “impact.”
Two other factors informed the deliberations. First, foundations tend to look at impact practice through two lenses: their own impact practice, and the impact practice of the organizations they fund. Second, foundations noted the importance of not conflating impact practice with grant monitoring and reporting, recognizing that while one can contribute to the other, the distinction between their respective purposes and processes should be maintained.

Other partners worked simultaneously with their constituents to develop resources that are available on the Inspiring Impact website.

I am happy to report that the initiative not only has been successful in engaging funders in a fast-growing movement, it has also helped avoid a narrow systems/technical approach by constantly reminding all involved of the richness and diversity of trusts and foundations in terms of what they do and how they go about it. Furthermore, it has helped de-bunk myths about the complexity and resource requirements of impact measurement and ensured that flexibility and proportionality are underpinning principles of the practice. And it has reinforced the notion that impact practice requires the commitment of the whole organization.

As such, Inspiring Impact is more about a culture shift and organizational change — a slow deliberate process in the best of circumstances; it requires leadership, resources, and time. Associations can help point members in the right direction, and perhaps help them chart a path, but it is up to members themselves to decide how they develop their impact practice in a way that is appropriate to their own circumstances.

On reflection, then, if we can agree that impact assessment is not just a passing fad but a fact of life, then associations should be at the forefront of the movement, ensuring that funders’ perspectives are recognized and that the resources and tools required by members to develop their practice are relevant and accessible.

Dr. James Magowan has recently taken on the role of coordinating director with DAFNE (Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe) and continues to work part-time with the UK Association of Charitable Foundations.

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy News Digest’s PhilanTopic blog. PND and PhilanTopic are services of Foundation Center.

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