The Organizer #5 | Impact

How do I get excited about impact? Impact is the best part of public interest work. It is the change that results from your work — like justice, safety, and clean water.

What we talk about when we talk about impact

Impact is the best part of public interest work. Sure, it’s a boring word, but it sums up the entire reason we do what we do.

“Impact” is the change that results from your work — like justice, safety, and clean water.

Everything you do, from the services you offer to the way you hold your board meetings, can help create impact.

In other words, every task on your “to do” list this week has the potential to change someone’s life for the better.

Impact is important and challenging

Thinking about impact, being aware of our impact, measuring impact … those actions are important. How else can we make sure our work is actually making a difference? How else will we know that difference is a good difference?

We have to measure impact, but it is challenging.

You have translate subjective experiences into metrics and units. Real impact won’t be known for years, but you still need to find ways to identify progress. You have to account for all the other activities that could be affecting what you observe. And the hardest part? You have to find time in your schedule to pause and reflect.

Think of impact as storytelling

Impact measurement instructions focus on identifying metrics that provide you with the data you need to understand the consequences of your work. For example, they teach you to connect a mission to spread awareness to the metric of “reach” and the unit of “people”. Or they teach you to connect a mission to conserve nature to the metric of “protected land” and the unit of “acres”.

At its heart, impact measurement isn’t just numbers. It’s storytelling. (The documentary kind, not the fiction kind!)

Forget about logic models and metrics and data collection methodologies for a minute. What you’re really doing is telling a story. You’re saying, “we started here.” Then you’re saying, “and then we did this.” Then you’re concluding, “and then this happened.”

That’s what a story is. Pick a starting point. Ask “And then what happened?” Keep asking until your curiosity is satisfied and the original situation feels resolved. End story.

Measurements are characters and plot points

The most common impact measures are just suggestions for interesting characters and plot points.

Want to tell a story about awareness or movement-building? You’ll probably need to talk about how many people got involved and what they did. Participation rates, engagement, and reach are all common impact measures.

Want to tell a story about conservation? You’ll probably need to talk about geographic spaces or ecosystems. Area is another common impact measure.

Want to tell a story about equality? You’ll probably need to talk about where power rests and how that’s changed. And change is usually what we talk about when we talk about impact.

Know your limits

Sometimes you can observe a clear “before” and “after” when you measure impact. (Think Queer Eye or Fixer Upper.)

Change may also be difficult to observe. It might be harder to measure or it might not happen until many years from now. Systemic change — powerful change — often takes decades to manifest.

All impact is change. But not all change can be understood in the moment.

There are limits to what we can measure. There are dangers to only doing work that is easy to measure. Those limits are good to keep in mind.

Focus on impact to prevent burning out

There are oodles of reasons why measuring impact is helpful to organizations. One important reason doesn’t get enough airtime, and that’s burnout.

We all know that burnout is a real and growing problem in social impact work. One of the main indicators of burnout is a sense of “inefficacy”. That’s a fancy way of saying that you feel like your efforts aren’t making a difference.

By contrast, feeling effective means your days have a sense of purpose. It gives you pride, connection, confidence, and meaning.

To feel effective, you need feedback. You get it through observation (like noticing when someone laughs at your jokes). Another person might give it to you (like saying thank you, or offering suggestions for improvement). You can get feedback by comparing data from today to a moment in the past.

Feedback doesn’t have to be positive. If something hasn’t worked, you want to know. That’s how we learn, how we become more effective.

When you measure impact, you generate feedback. It gives you the power to tweak behaviours that aren’t making a difference. You can identify broken systems. You may often discover that you’ve done some really remarkable things.

In other words, you ward off burnout.

This is the good part

The point of impact measurement isn’t to evaluate your worth as an organization or human being. There’s no need to get existential.

The point of impact measurement is to feed yourself the information and encouragement you need to pursue important goals. It’s to help you and your community persist and to learn, even in the face of uncertainty, hardship, and opposition.

Helpful things

  • If you want guidance on how to define and measure impact, this overview by Kaelee Nelson is really helpful.
  • If you want a cheat sheet for what impact measures to use, I love the Nonprofit Taxonomy of Outcomes. It’s easier to read than the title suggests. Just scan the list until you get to the type of work you do, then select any of the potential metrics that describe your impact.
  • If you really want to dive deep, the Outcome Indicators Project offers detailed frameworks for 14 specific sectors on The Urban Institute’s website (e.g., advocacy, performing arts)

The Organizer is a newsletter for people working to create equitable and sustainable communities. Whether you are part of a nonprofit, a charity, or a social enterprise, this newsletter is for you.

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