The Organizer #23 | Impact

How do I define my organization's impact when there are so many reasons to avoid doing it? Just make some time to do it. If you don't try to define your impact, the work will always feel harder than it needs to be.

Defining your impact is harder than it sounds

Impact is everything, but defining it can be hard.

Impact is the reason we do the work we do. It’s the change we seek to create in the world, the conditions we try to create for ourselves and others. It’s a difference — hopefully positive — between the way things are and the way we’d like things to be.

Paying attention to impact can drive change and make organizations more effective, more accountable. It’s super important.

At the same time, talking about impact can sometimes feel like an egg-heady, abstract exercise in productivity-theatre.

That’s one reason Nicole Gagliardi’s LinkedIn article is so great. In just a few short paragraphs, she cut straight to the heart of a few common questions about impact measurement:

  • What is impact?
  • What happens if you don’t define your organization’s impact?
  • Why do so many of us refuse to define our impact, even when we know it’s good for us?

Can you and your organization define your impact?

Nicole provides a kind of mini-test for your organization’s impact intelligence. Can you:

  1. Define the specific change you exist to create
  2. Articulate how your work contributes to that change
  3. Track how effective your programs are at creating change

Many organizations struggle with the “specific” part of #1. You might know you exist to “help” or to “save” or to “serve” or to “solve”, but you struggle to define the details. Ironically, the better people understand the complexity of the issues they address, the more difficult they may find it to define their impact specifically.

What’s great about #2 is the double-meaning of the words “your work”. This could mean both your organization’s work and your personal work.

How does your organization’s work contribute to the change it exists to create? How does your personal work contribute to your organization’s impact? Knowing the answers to those questions helps people carry out winning strategies, stay motivated, and ward off burnout.

Tracking (#3) is the rich, super nerdy part of impact measurement. Tracking is the way you define, collect, and analyze data to see what effect you are truly having on the world around you. It’s how you learn and adapt and grow and mature. It’s how you become and remain accountable to your community.

Tracking is part of the true craft of nonprofit management.

The gap between who we are and who we want to be

Most of us believe it is important to define and measure impact, but few of us actually do it day-to-day.

Rather than make you feel guilty, Nicole looks at why this gap exists in the first place. She puts forward a few different reasons people struggle to define their impact, including:

  • Uncertainty. Explaining change work often generates a lot of ambiguity, something that makes our brains, bosses, and donors uncomfortable.
  • Cognitive biases. People are deeply invested in the way they do things. Deep impact assessment might lead to the conclusion that you or your strategy need to change, and that can be emotionally and financially painful.
  • Ego. We like to think we already know what we’re doing.
  • Urgency. There. Are. So. Many. Urgent. Things. To. Do. Right. Now. Looking backward, looking forward, and updating documentation never seem as urgent.
  • Lag time. Often the information we need doesn’t appear until long after our work finishes. Education, habitat restoration, preventative health efforts are just a few examples of really important work with impact that might not manifest until a generation later.
  • Expertise. Defining impact and measuring it take skill and experience. Most organizations don’t have that expertise when they start out, and because the work isn’t prioritized the skills aren’t being nurtured.

Easier isn’t always better

There are a lot of reasonable excuses not to define and measure impact. Honestly, impact measurement is easy to skip. There are real costs, too.

When organizations don’t articulate what Nicole calls “the what, why, and how of change”, they tend to embrace bad habits. They focus on action and doing at all costs, which means inefficiencies and wasted effort. They take their assumptions for granted, which wastes resources and sometimes causes real harm to communities.

Organizations that skip the impact work, says Nicole, let logistics drive their strategy. They concentrate on immediate, tangible needs. They work reactively, with a constant feeling of being “behind”. Sound familiar?

These habits are the recipe for burnout and disenchantment. They are the kinds of habits that make good work feel hard all of the time.

Make time to define impact

We do this work because we want to see change in the world.

Impact is our motivation. It’s everything. So it’s worth defining.

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.

Each edition, we explore one aspect of social impact work. We answer a common “How do I …?” question, and we tell you about a tool that will help make your work a little easier. Subscribe for free at