The Organizer #17 | Impact

How do I do impact measurement so it isn't boring or painful? Collect data that is useful to you and use the information to tell your story, motivate yourself, learn, and grow.

The joy of impact measurement

Impact is the reason nonprofits, social enterprises, and charities do what we do. It’s also famously hard to measure.

A heap of sand

If you stumbled upon a heap of sand, you would recognize it. You might even say, “My, look at this heap of sand on my living room floor!”

If I took away one grain of sand, you would still have a heap of sand on your floor.

If I then I took away one handful of sand, you would still have a heap of sand on your floor.

But if I took all of the sand but for one grain, you would not have a heap. You would have a single grain of sand on your floor.

So here is the riddle: When does a heap stop being a heap? And when do a few grains become a heap?

It’s an impossible question to answer.

Impact is like sand

Too often, we want our impact to be like a giant pile of sand. We want it to be so big and impressive and unequivocally a pile that no one — including ourselves — can doubt it.

When you achieve a big goal, you usually know it. Legislation gets passed, or you see fish and birds return to a wetland.

Big results are few and far between, though; they take years to achieve. Many people in the social impact sector only experience them a few times in their entire careers.

We can’t wait for the big moments. There’s too much at stake. That’s why we measure impact.

When we measure impact, we look at grains instead of piles. We study small accumulations of sand that are most definitely something but not convincingly a heap. This is how we learn.

The problem is, impact measurement isn’t always fun.

The hard part about measuring impact

Something happens when we try to measure impact. All of a sudden this big, important issue that we cared about deeply is reduced to metrics. When something that spoke to our hearts and our values is transformed into observations and annotations, it’s like the soul disappears.

If we loved impact measurement, if we found it personally rewarding and invigorating, we’d find a way to make it happen. Luckily, there can be joy in impact measurement.

Here’s the secret

The joy of impact measurement isn’t in the measuring impact part. The measurement process takes all the narrative (read: meaning) out of the work we are doing. That’s why we don’t like doing it.

The joy comes afterwards, when we take all the impact information and construct a new narrative about what actually happened. It comes when we use that information to create stronger programs. It comes when we inject a sense of learning and growth into our work, stepping off the hamster wheel after running in place for years.

Most importantly, joy will come from a shared understanding, from moving forward with a group of people who have a common idea of what they are doing together.

You use your impact data to create a story about what comes next.

In the end, impact measurement strengthens your sense of purpose and progress.

Other reasons we don’t like measuring impact

Measuring impact takes resources, and very few of us have extra time, people, or money sitting around looking for more work to do.

You need time at the beginning of a project to set up your impact measurement. You need a little time during your project to make sure your data is being collected and stored, and perhaps to feed back some key results to strengthen the program while it’s still underway. At the end of the project, you need time to analyze your findings.

You need someone to set up the project and collect the data who has a basic understanding of impact measurement. If your organization is new to this work, you might need to get training before you begin.

You should have some technical infrastructure, like spreadsheet software or a financial database, and you need to know how to use it to generate reports or create visualizations.

You will also want to have the ability at the end of the project to incorporate your findings into the next thing you do., learn, and adapt. This means you need attitudes and rituals and activities that promote learning and change and intentional action. If you have a culture of rushing from project to project or jumping from idea to implementation, then you won’t be able to learn and grow.

Not measuring impact is worse

The truth is, the cost of not measuring impact is much higher than just doing it. We throw hard-won donations away when we keep doing the same old work without scrutinizing its effectiveness, .

When we don’t measure impact, we end up over-investing in projects and strategies that aren’t generating as much impact as they should, mistaking familiarity for efficacy.

When we skip impact measurement, we under-invest in strategies and ideas that do work. We starve new leaders or new projects of funds. We miss out on opportunities to innovate.

Skipping impact measurement also creates conditions for detachment and burnout. People know when their work could be making more of a difference. The talent we need recognizes when organizations aren’t learning or changing, and they look for new opportunities or disengage from their daily tasks.

The power of measurement

Impact measurement is not inherently good or bad.

When used for the wrong purpose, it can:
> Help justify work that isn’t really making a difference
> Undermine or erase hard-to-measure work that is crucially important
> Prop up the status quo

On the other hand, measuring impact can lead to transformative change. It can:
> Generate a case for experimentation and creative risk-taking
> Expose inequities and biases in your organization
> Show you how to achieve more with your limited resources
> Give you and your team a sense of purpose
> Tell a compelling story about the value of good work
> Foster a shared understanding of an organization’s mission and impact

It’s what you do with impact information that makes the measurements so powerful.

So what are you waiting for?

How to measure impact, literally

There was no way you were getting out of this article without reading a plug for spreadsheets. If you’re going to measure impact, it’s the one tool that you need to have. Luckily, a spreadsheet tool is probably already in your organization’s software suite. Google Sheets is great. Excel is popular, so is Airtable. Use whatever you’re already using and it won’t cost a dime.

The hardest part is launching that software and setting up your first impact tracker. Staring at the screen of empty rows and columns is scary.

To get you started, one of these articles might help:

  • What is social impact and how do we measure it?” offers a very simple, high-level description of impact measurement. It’s great for beginners.
  • 5 metrics for social impact measurement is a cheat sheet for people who don’t know where to start. Pick one of the five to get rolling this week (Hint: #3 is the easiest).
  • The Common Foundations of Impact Measurement walks you through the process of setting up an impact measurement initiative at your organization. You won’t finish the steps all in one week, but if you’re serious about impact measurement you could tackle page one: define the impact your organization wants to achieve.

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