Blog: Working with volunteers in impact practice


Inspiring Impact ran and live streamed an event on 2nd February 2017 that focused on the benefits of working with volunteers to measure impact practice. Three of our Impact Champs presented on their own experiences:

Based on their presentations, they have pulled together their top 11 tips for working with volunteers:

  1. Take a volunteering plus approach – build longer-term relationships with volunteers and support them to develop their skills. This might involve providing additional training or opportunities,where possible.
  2. Make sure the volunteers that you recruit have values that align with your own, and understand the challenges many voluntary organisations can face, particularly around time or skillcapacity.
  3.  Consider how you ‘match’ a volunteer to a group, based on their interests, geography etc. A correct match of learning styles and interests can be crucial in building a trusting working relationship. This is particularly important when it comes to impact practice, which may involve tricky discussions around what doesn’t work as well as what does.
  4. Allow volunteers to become an ambassador for your programme/organisation and help you with recruiting and training new volunteers.
  5. Volunteers can play the role of a non-judgmental, critical friend bringing with them a fresh outside perspective. They help create the much-needed space for staff to reflect on high-level strategic issues.
  6. Don’t shy away from recruiting volunteers with a limited knowledge of impact practice. Those with a strong skill-base in strategic or business planning, communications or data analysis can be incredibly valuable, and you can provide the training required to position this within an impact practice context.
  7. Ensure a consistent approach and language is used amongst all volunteers. Provide a glossary of key terms, or ‘how we explain’ certain concepts to avoid conflicting methods of delivery.
  8. Recognise, and make the most of the skills, talents and motivation that volunteers bring to any project. Map their skills into your work and see where they are most likely to make the biggest contribution. Give volunteers a choice on what they work on and invite them to contribute towards the shaping and improvement of your programme/services.
  9.  Practice what you preach and make sure you know what success looks like. Are the necessary feedback and data collection mechanisms in place to track how the volunteers are making a difference? Importantly, let volunteers know the impact of their work, and celebrate this! If they’re not involved in direct service delivery this is particularly important as they may not be able to see the immediate impact of their work.
  10. Maintain regular communications with the volunteers and with the groups they support. This helps to maintain engagement, and to ensure that everything is on track.
  11. Volunteers are often best involved in projects, services or programmes that are already well-established, rather than processes that your organisation is trying out for the first time. If you’re trying something new, you might want to do a mini pilot with paid staff before bringing in volunteers.

If you like what you’ve read, watch the full event for more insights on working with volunteers.

If you have any further questions for any of the speakers, they’re very happy for you to get in touch with any questions. Their email addresses are included above.

Special thanks go to Dr Jurgen Grotz from NCVO Institute of Volunteering Research for chairing the event.

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Blog: Impact Practice is a journey

Nick Wilsdon, Learning & Evaluation Manager at the National Foundation for Youth Music shares his experience of the process of successfully embedding a strategic learning approach to evaluation. He highlights the journey of change in his organisation, and concludes with helpful tips for anyone embarking on a similar journey. 

Youth Music is a national charity, investing in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances. Our projects help young people to develop musically, but they also yield positive personal and social outcomes too. At any one time, we will have between 350 and 400 active projects, working with somewhere in the region of 75,000 children and young people annually.

Evidenced-based funding practice sits at the heart of our organisation. Impact is central to our business plan, and evaluation and learning are a crucial to our mission. We are dedicated to measuring the impact of our work, disseminating learning which serves to inform our funding practice and to inform music-making practice in the sector through the generation of evidence based resources and outputs.


Prior to the inaugural meeting of the UK Evaluation Roundtable in 2014, the Institute of Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) published a framing paper which posited three main uses for evaluation: accountability, demonstrating impact and strategic learning. Over Youth Music’s short history, it is possible to trace a trajectory that runs from using evaluation for accountability purposes, through to demonstrating impact and towards strategic learning. Our first monitoring forms from around the turn of the century sought to identify if funding had been allocated in line with funding agreementsin short, accountability.

By 2008, we had established an internal Research & Evaluation department, who introduced an outcomes approach and published our first annual impact report shortly after. It was clear at this stage that we were using evaluation to demonstrate impact and understand how our funding had made a difference.

By 2012, we had absorbed this ethos into the roles of those managing grants through the creation of the Grants & Learning Officer role during an organisational restructure, embedding learning within the management of grants. We also had established a consistent outcomes framework across our programme. At the time of writing, we are in a position to use evaluation in (nearly!) real time to inform the decisions we make, and we regularly adapt our strategies in response to the changing circumstances around us; strategic learning has become a very real part of how we operate as an organisation.


There are numerous practical guides about adopting impact practice (see for example NCVO’s excellent wiki on How to build an impact culture or NPC’s equally good Four pillar approach) and as many organisations will attest, this is not something that happens overnight. Whilst envisioning significant organisational change may appear straightforward on the surface, enacting it involves substantial organisational commitment. Moreover, organisational buy-in is a pre-requisite to successfully building an impact culture, so it is vital to engage senior leaders, trustees and colleagues in the process. Resources like Inspiring Impact’s Measuring Up! tool provide an excellent framework to reflect on your organisation’s current impact practice with colleagues, and can help you identify and prioritise areas for development. Highlighting the long-term benefits is essential in order to gain the necessary buy-in to overcome the challenges in the short-term.


On a day to day basis, our priorities for handling information are driven by the three guiding principles which are crucial to strategic learning (as highlighted by IVAR):

  1. Asking the right questions and getting the right data
  2. Structuring the work to enable regular use of data
  3. Effectively processing and using the data

Recognising that we are a relatively small charity, with access to a comparatively substantial volume of information from our grant holders alone, foregrounds the necessity for efficiency. Likewise, our portfolio contains many small, grassroots organisations often with limited resources. As such it is essential that we collect quantitative and qualitative data that is focused on the questions that we need to answer in line with our business planning.

We also seek to make our data as portable as we possibly can. Our quantitative data is published annually and we are currently developing mechanisms to run automated reports which allow for more frequent and detailed analysis. By coding against our outcomes framework in qualitative analysis software, we have created an index and searchable database of the rich range of experiences of all those involved in our projects. This has allowed us to ground everything from internal strategy documents to external guidance and resources in our evidence base, ensuring it is relevant to our stakeholders.


An openness to learning helps nurture an organisational ethos that is open to change. By mapping the ebb and flow of knowledge both internally between teams and externally across stakeholders, inefficiencies and missed opportunities can readily be highlighted. For example, we noticed that our Grants & Learning Officers’ daily consumption of information through direct contact with our portfolio was sizeable, yet only a fraction of this was formally captured.

By recognising our Grants & Learning Officers as the gatekeepers of this information, and adopting an organisational approach to learning (see Crossan et al.) we devised a light-touch mechanism to support the individual intuition, team interpretation, and organisational integration in a ‘feedforward’ process. Our Grants & Learning Officers meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of interest to the organisation, distilling key information for dissemination to the wider staff team in all staff sessions. The resultant documentation is indexed for internal use, and our Communications Team prepare extracts for external distribution.

This process allows for the transfer of intelligence beyond the individual, ensuring that key information exists beyond the each member of the team.

As Crossan et al. identify (there is a useful diagram on page 11 of the piece) the process works in both directions; the feedforward process supports exploration (i.e. assimilation of new learning) and feedback processes allow exploitation (i.e. making use of what has already been learned). By supporting learning across the organisation, nurturing the tension between exploration and exploitation, it is possible build an impact culture that becomes rewarding and close to self-sustaining. Through this process, organisations can build an openness to change which ultimately supports strategic renewal.


  1. Map the flow of knowledgeFind out: Who has access to what information? Who does not have access to beneficial information? Who are the gatekeepers of knowledge? How can you easily share that knowledge both internally and externally?
  2. Engage your senior leadership team and trustees in the processDemonstrate your assets and highlight the untapped potential
  3. Reflect on your organisations impact practiceTools like Inspiring Impact’s Measuring Up!can help identify strengths and highlight areas for improvement
  4. Optimise periods of changeSignificant organisational changes can be stressful times, but they can also provide opportunities to lay the foundations for new ways of working.
  5. Seek out light-touch ways of capturing knowledgeHold team and all staff sharing sessions and think about the potential audiences for all information to maximise its potential
  6. Nurture a culture of learningand allow the organisation ownership over it
  7. Create resources in accessible placesand refer people to them at every opportunity. Index your data where possible, and create structure that allows you to cut it in many different ways. And if you use a tool or resource that other organisations could benefit from, put it up on the Inspiring Impact Impact hub!
  8. Ensure that you have the appropriate skills within your staff resources to process, interpret and analyse the data you collect.
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Blog: Learning matters—make it a habit, not an event

 The Big Lottery FundPatty Lozano-Casal, (second left) Inspiring Impact lead for Evaluation Support Scotland, reflects on Principle 8 of The Code of Good Impact Practice: ‘Actively share your impact plans, methods, findings and learning’.  

In it she draws on her two weeks at the Big Lottery Fund (the Fund) on a learning exchange with the Policy and Learning Team (find out about what Áine from the Fund got up to when she went to ESS in her blog). 

What comes to your mind when someone mentions ‘playing the lottery’? (Okay, apart from ‘please, let the winner be me!’, even if you didn’t buy a ticket…).

Having worked at ESS for over 5 years I thought I knew quite a bit about what the fund does and the difference it makes to people and communities in the UK; however, as Socrates once said, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’it turns out I only knew the tip of the iceberg!  On the theme of knowing, then, here’s how to become a learning organisation:

  1. Listen to, learn from, act on and facilitate the things that matter to the people and organisations you work with. The Fund and ESS are ‘learning organisations’ that aim to be catalysts for others. ESS champions evaluation, evidence and learning of ‘what works’ to inform practice and influence policy. The Fund is open to conversations on how they can best achieve their mission of bringing real improvements to communities and the lives of people most in need.
  2. Remember that policy and learning are two sides of the same coin. Policies set out the direction of travel; it is the implementation of those policies (ie, practice) that changes the lives of people and communities (for better but sometimes, unfortunately, for worse!). In order for policies to effectively address real issues for real people we need to listen to and learn from their experiences.
  3. Don’t forget: Everyone has a story: ESS supports third sector organisations so they can measure and report on the difference they make and what they learn in the process (positive and negative!) to funders. Funders like the Fund use third sector evidence and learning to inform their grant-making processes to ensure that every penny goes to where’s most needed.
  4. It’s not just about giving out money: Crucial to community building and supporting local people and groups is to enable them to think about what they want to do in their community and how they can make that happen; the Fund’s Our Place programme is all about this.
  5. Learning happens at all levels of an organisation: Organisations are made up of people who not only bring different skill sets, knowledge and expertise but engage with stakeholders at different levels and for different reasons. People should be in the lead in improving their lives and communities.
  6. Organisational learning is key to improving practice (but it can be challenging) for large organisations like the Funds or small organisations like ESS. Organisational learning requires leadership, time, skills and capacity but also processes that enable learning.
  7. Start small and grow: You don’t have to wait until you finish a programme to harness and share your learning in a lengthy report; instead, share your learning in small bites from the outset.
  8. Horses for courses: People have different learning styles. Some prefer to learn from images, others from words; some people prefer to learn in groups, while others prefer to work alone. Think about how your audience is likely to learn and adapt your ‘products’ to their needs. Be creative with your learning.
  9. Paralysed by learning? Just do it! Struggling to get started? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Being a ‘learning organisation’ is not something you occasionally do; it’s a lifestyle. You can start by making small changes to your practice, but just make sure you start!

Remember that learning is like any habit; it takes time to adopt it. Just don’t give up!

Further reading:

Interested in other principles? Check out The Code of Good Impact Practice – report and summary!

Want to know how to self-assess your impact practice, including how you share impact learning?  Measuring Up! for small organisations can help you get started.

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Impact measurement tools: Have your say

When you go away how do you decide where to stay? Do you go with the cheapest option or look at how many stars a hotel has got? Do you just stay in the same place every time or insist on somewhere new? Do you rely on tips from family and friends, look at the average ratings on TripAdvisor or delve a little deeper and read the comments? No doubt it’s generally a mixture but something more than the blurb from the hotel or holiday company is needed to seal the deal.

Funnily enough, you tell us that there’s actually little difference when you are making decisions about which tools and systems you use to measure and improve your impact. That’s why we are keen to crowdsource organisations’ experiences so we can share them and allow others to find the stories that resonate with them.

If you have used any of the tools listed on our Impact Hub (or others like them that aren’t listed) we’d love it if you could take a few minutes to provide some quick feedback so we can let people know (anonymously if you prefer) what they’re really like, good, bad or ugly. You can access the survey from this link. Thank you.

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Good Impact Practice: a basis for building and maintaining trust

James Magowan is the Inspiring Impact lead for ACF. Here he reflects on issues raised at the recent ACF conference—which had ‘Trust’ as its theme. He explains why he  sees good impact practice as a significant contributing factor in building and maintaining trust between charities and funders.

David Emerson (Chief Executive, ACF) in his opening address to the ACF conference set the tone of the event by posing two big questions:

  • How do we retain and strengthen trust, and overcome what threatens and erodes it?
  • How can we hold, harness and deploy trust?

Many speakers went on to present answers to these questions.

We should not just want more trust, but rather we should trust intelligently, looking for honesty, competence and reliability—was Onora O’Neill’s view. Drawing from her expertise as Reith Lecturer and Ted Talk presenter on the topic of Trust, she highlighted the need for evidence relating to honesty, competence and reliability to be expressed transparently and to be well communicated.

Questions and contributions from the audience identified challenges in building a two-way trusting relationship – including addressing perceived and actual power imbalances, and improving the credibility of evidence.  Some stressed that  funders and charities have a responsibility to demonstrate trustworthiness more widely (among the general public, and with the private and statutory sectors) and hence to build trust in the role of civil society.  And it was recognised that trustworthiness, like social capital, naturally erodes and must be constantly maintained.

Dawn Auswick, Big Lottery Fund Chief Executive, warned that, in a world where actions are ‘done to’ rather than ‘owned by’, institutional frameworks tend to focus on accountability and compliance, which implies scepticism and  mistrust.  She went on to suggest that ‘foundations need to question their leadership role in a creating a funding ecology rather than a bureaucracy’.

It is this point about accountability and compliance that is the reason impact practice is sometimes perceived as the antithesis of trust. That demonstrating your impact is about showing you’re definitely doing what you’re saying you’re doing. But I would argue  that good impact practice is not good impact practice unless it is founded on trust.

Good impact practice does not focus solely on the achievement of proven or anticipated change, rather it puts learning and improving at its heart.  The Funders’ Principles and Drivers of Good Impact Practice clearly state that any approach to impact measurement must be based on trust, honesty and integrity. It is essential that grantees are made to feel confident in articulating the difference they intend to make and the difference they actually make. They should feel comfortable communicating truthfully what works and why, and what doesn’t work and why not.

This enables both parties to responsibly invest their resources, learn from practice, and improve, thus both contributing to more effective social change.  Using the tool Measuring Up! is a useful starting point for both charities and funders to assess their impact practice and to establish an impact approach that empowers, informs, and improves the work they do.

Good impact practice helps both funders and grantees demonstrate their trustworthiness – that is to say, their honesty, competence and reliability.  In response to David’s questions – good impact practice is one way to help foundations retain, strengthen, harness and deploy trust, and overcome what threatens and erodes it.

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The power of peer support

by Patty Lozano-Casal, Evidence into Policy and Practice Manager at Evaluation Support Scotland

On my way to work recently I found myself reflecting on the idea of ‘peer support’. I remembered a personal anecdote that my colleague, Emma, shared with me. She told me about a time when she took her children to a playground and one of her daughters got frustrated because she couldn’t swing.  Emma, being a supportive mother told her child: ‘If you say the words “I can do it” it works like magic. Try it!’  With this in mind the child tried again, succeeding at the first attempt.  At a later date, Emma heard her daughter repeat her words to another child, ‘If you say the words “I can do it” it works like magic’.

Peer support doesn’t just happen when we are children. Humans, and some animals such as elephants, often offer and seek support. But why? According to a review of more than 1000 studies carried out by Nesta, peer support can help us feel more knowledgeable, confident and happy, and less isolated and alone. So I wonder, why do we carry on evaluating our work in isolation from our peers?

At Evaluation Support Scotland (ESS) we believe in the power of peer support, which is why we work collaboratively with organisations, combining their expertise with ours to generate evaluation approaches they can own, develop and run with.

In fact, one of the many outcomes achieved by the Evaluation Exchange programme that ESS ran with Iriss in 2013 is that ‘participants actively expressed the benefits of peer support in helping them work through the challenges of self-evaluation.’ Iriss used this and other learning to produce the illustrated booklet, Supporting peer support: Thoughts for people wanting to set up, run or participate in a peer support group.

ESS and Iriss aren’t alone in this. For example, Inspiring Impact’s Code of Good Impact Practice highlights ‘involving others in your impact practice’ and ‘actively sharing impact plans, methods, findings and learning’ with peers and other stakeholders as key principles to follow when focusing on impact.

Inspiring Impact also encourages funders and commissioners to create and nurture a culture of peer support among grantees. Funders like the ALLIANCE’s Self-Management Fund lead by example and advise grantees to avoid reinventing the wheel by asking funders to put them in touch with other organisations doing similar work. Sharing learning about what works in impact measurement with peers can lead to developing, designing and implementing shared approaches to impact measurement.

ESS bought into the value of peer support a long time ago, and we now run learning sets and working groups to decipher key evaluation challenges. We know it works, so we are taking a peer support approach to delivering the Inspiring Impact Scotland programme too. For example, we are facilitating an Embedding Impact Practice group. This collection of nine third-sector organisations meet every couple of months to share learning about what works in embedding impact practice in organisations. Cassy Rutherford from The Robertson Trust and other group members plan to share the learning with other Inspiring Impact Champions at an event this summer 2016.

So, if like me and other Inspiring Impact partners you are interested in taking the a peer support approach to embedding impact practice and evaluation in your organisation, why not become an Impact Champion? The initiative was set up by Inspiring Impact out of an awareness that often organisations get stuck about where to start with impact measurement, and using the Inspiring Impact resources. Impact Champions can provide support with this by reaching out to their network and partner organisations to assist with good impact practice.

Or, if you work in Scotland, you may wish to join our informal Inspiring Impact Champions Network. Not sure? You can always just join the Inspiring Impact mailing list to keep updated of what your peers are doing—a simple way to get involved, and join the peer support wagon!

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Taking our own advice—Embedding impact practice across our organisation

By Dr Cassy Rutherford

These are challenging times for the third sector, and it’s becoming increasingly important for us all—funders included—to be able to understand and evidence our impact.

The Robertson Trust is the largest independent grant-making trust in Scotland. We aim to improve the quality of life, and realise the potential, of people and communities in the country. Last year alone we gave more than £18.2 million to charities of different sizes, which have the potential to achieve positive change for those they support.

With more applications coming to us, it’s vital that we understand what impact we’re having and why. Without this information it’s hard for us to make informed decisions about where we should be targeting our investments to best support people and communities.

We’ve always recognised the importance of evidence-informed decision making and have done a lot of work around improving our monitoring and evaluation requirements for grant-holders. For example, we worked with a number of other funders and Evaluation Support Scotland (ESS) to produce a piece on Harmonising Reporting in 2010.

Despite this, we know that we’ve not always made the best use of the monitoring reports that we receive. Some of our funding programmes are centred on working with organisations to gather evidence about what works, what doesn’t work, and why. However, our main grants programme does not currently have this focus.

Our Trustees agreed that we needed a more consistent approach to evaluation and impact measurement across the whole organisation.  After all, if we’re asking our grant-holders to understand the difference they make, it’s only right that we do the same. To support this they created a new post of Evidence and Learning Officer, which I took up.

My main role is to develop and implement new approaches for impact measurement across our different teams. I’m part of Inspiring Impact Scotland’s Embedding Impact Practice group, which is facilitated by ESS, a partner of Inspiring Impact. Being able to share successes and challenges with a network of peers has been invaluable—helping me to understand and develop this process better, both for The Trust and our grant-holders. We’ve already found some common challenges and hope that we’ll be able to share our learning more widely in order to help other organisations too.

Through this group I’ve been supported to use Inspiring Impact’s Measuring Up! tool, which has helped me to understand the gaps and weaknesses in our current practice. It has also highlighted some of the challenges we face; for example, how we can measure our impact indirectly through evidence from our funded projects.

We are in the process of developing a new strategy for the Trust. The current uncertainty this raises makes developing an evaluation plan a lot harder, but it also means it’s the perfect time to be having these discussions.

We know that it’s not always going to be an easy process but we’re looking forward to working through some of the challenges with continued support from Inspiring Impact partner ESS.

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Shared experience: Helping small organisations measure their impact

By Judith McComb

Sported is a free membership organisation that supports thousands of community groups and clubs across the UK that use the power of sport to change young lives.  

As part of the Inspiring Impact Northern Ireland  pilot, Sported helped 20 of its member groups to sign up to Inspiring Impact’s Code of Good Impact Practice, complete the Measuring Up! online self-assessment tool and develop an ‘Impact Practice Action Plan’ for their individual organisations.

To help other organisations who may be considering doing the same but are not sure how to approach the task, Judith McComb has shared Sported’s experience below.

95% of Sported’s Northern Ireland member groups are volunteer-led, with less than five paid members of staff. The concept of impact practice, along with the time and resources associated with measuring impact, therefore often appears daunting.

The support we offered to our member groups was an important way of facilitating their ability to measure impact. This included group sessions, one-to-one support to complete Measuring Up! with specific help  around action planning, and remote support via email and telephone.

With this level of assistance from Sported, the project has been hugely successful. All 20 of the pilot groups have pledged their support for the Code of Impact Practice and, to date, 14 have completed the Measuring Up! tool and are implementing their Action Plans.

Code of Good Impact Practice

Sported held an initial workshop with our 20 groups to explain the concept and key terms in the Code of Good Impact Practice  so participants could take their learning back to their committee and volunteers. Following this, we attended committee meetings for a number of the groups to ensure the language, definitions and concept of Impact Practice was fully understood.

Feedback from participating member groups was very positive, with all groups pledging their support to the Code of Good Impact Practice.

Measuring Up!

At Sported, we undertook the Measuring Up! assessment for ourselves and found it really useful for identifying areas of strength and where we needed to develop our impact practice. This first-hand experience was a valuable source of learning that we were able to share with our members.

In particular, we found that using the Guidance Notes and Add Notes features of the tool was important. The notes that are added become the basis for generating an ‘automatic action plan’ so it’s crucial to take time to think about this.  The guidance notes were vital for our groups as they provided definitions and direct links to additional resources and information.

To speed up the learning curve and try and reduce the conflict between time spent on planning versus delivering activities for young people, we also developed a glossary of key terms for the groups.

Through the self-assessment tool, our pilot groups were able to identify areas of impact practice where they had gaps and prioritise these areas of development. We helped the groups with the Plan section of Measuring Up! which took around an hour and a half. They were then able to complete the three remaining sections—Do, Assess, Review—by themselves, taking about thirty minutes on each section.

Overall, groups found the Measuring Up tool very practical and easy to use, although some found some of the detail difficult to engage with:

‘A lot of the measuring tool didn’t apply to us as it seemed more fitting for large organisations with full time staff. But we all found it very useful and it really opened up the eyes to non-committee members of what goes on in the background and the work and commitment that keeps us driving forward.’ —Northern Ireland Cross-Community Angling.

In their feedback, they suggested a ‘light tool’ could be designed for smaller voluntary groups, but they did recognise the benefits of completing the tool.

Impact Practice Action Planning

Upon completing Measuring Up! groups found the action plan—automatically generated from the notes they had added throughout—to be a really useful document. It enabled them to add activities and timeframes to their plan which they could quickly and easily share with Sported.

Using these, we were able to offer advice and signposting on a number of areas for each group. It also gave us the opportunity to recognise common areas of development across the groups which we capitalised on by holding workshops on theory of change, communications, and Sported’s own shared impact measurement tool, Sportworks.

The tailored and intense level of support offered by Sported to these groups has been a key factor in the completion of this pilot programme. We would strongly recommend this level of support for smaller, voluntary-led groups. We would also recommend collecting feedback about the experience and passing it on to the Inspiring Impact partnership group. It all helps refine the process, and is an important part of the wider ‘sharing’ aspect of the programme’s shared measurement vision.

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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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To Northern Ireland and beyond!

My Irish mother would be very pleased with me: I think I’m falling in love with Northern Ireland. Not only does it have beautiful landscape, friendly people and an excellent Titanic exhibition, but it’s seriously thinking about what it can do to help young people find and keep a good job.

Over the past year we have worked with Inspiring Impact Northern Ireland to adapt and pilot our Journey to Employment (JET) Framework for a Northern Irish context. Issues of sectarianism and other community challenges are experienced differently in Northern Ireland, and the NEETS Forum and the DEL wanted a framework to reflect this.

So we now have our standard JET Framework, and a JET Framework for Northern Ireland. But for me, the real difference between the two frameworks has less to do with the outcomes and scales it contains, and more to do with the strength of ambition behind it.

It’s a truism that making things happen is easier in small countries: you know who all the important people are and you can get them in a room. Northern Ireland has a NEETS Forum made up of a good proportion of all the charities working with young people to get them into employment. This forum is able to lead, challenge and inspire the sector. We first presented to them about JET back in December 2013; they expected it to provide support with measurement, but they also thought further ahead to consider how it could help the sector work better together to really tackle unemployment.

The new Northern Irish version of the framework has been piloted with a range of organisations—from large ones like Barnardo’s to very local ones like Sandy Row Community Centre. Those who used it feel it offers a great way to become more strategic and rigorous about impact measurement. The NEETs Forum are now thinking about how they can create a more systemic approach to impact. Part of this is about encouraging organisations to use a shared measurement framework. But it could also include a great deal more than this—reflecting on where there are gaps in provision, how to encourage more collaboration and talk about the value of the sector.

NPC is hoping to continue our work with Inspiring Impact NI and the NEETS Forum as they enter this phase. We would like to bring in philanthropic funders and businesses so that the approach is joined up across the sector—because there is the potential here to make this about much more than just measuring impact.

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