The Organizer #30 | Impact

How do I start measuring impact? Start with simple rituals, like asking for impact stories in your staff meetings and spending five minutes a week making your own notes.

How to start measuring impact

It’s not easy to forge a new way of doing things. If you want to start measuring impact and it’s not part of your normal work routine, it can be hard to know where to start.

Impact measurement is more of a culture than a specific activity or skill. It’s a way of thinking and operating more than an outcome or a result.

If you aren’t measuring impact regularly, be prepared for some friction when you start out. No person or organization finds impact measurement easy at first. Begin by building a few easy routines, and worry about scale later.

Even though “impact” is a bit of a buzzword, it is still a bit of a rebellious thing to do. Learning, change, and accountability are prerequisites to doing real good. They are also behaviours that are not typically rewarded in a competitive, personality-driven culture.

When you measure impact, you show that you care more about making a difference than you do about being right. You prioritize learning over ego. You embrace the possibility that you will have to do things that are different, new, and intimidating instead of things that are familiar and comfortable.

It takes courage to do what others are afraid to do. It takes persistence to create new habits and routines.

If you find it hard to follow through on your plans to measure impact, don’t worry. Just start again.

Start with small steps

To start measuring impact, take a lesson from experts in behaviour change and focus on small steps. Make it easier to do the thing you want to do, and/ or make it harder to do the thing you don’t want to do.

When it comes to building personal habits, experts recommend leaving your running shoes at the door to remind you to go for a jog. Or they’ll say you should put your guitar beside the couch and take the batteries out of your remote control if you want to play guitar instead of watching TV

Impact measurement is no different. You need to focus on building simple habits and routines if you want the new behaviour to last. 

Two simple ways to start measuring impact

1. Group reflection

The first way to start measuring impact in your organization is to get other people involved. Keep it simple — don’t worry about making it formal or fancy.

If you have a regular meeting (like a weekly staff meeting), add a two minute impact update to the agenda. Find one person to report on impact since the last meeting. You can use something anecdotal, if that’s easier, like a story about an interaction with a member of the community. Data is only helpful if it drives at something important, so don’t get too hung up on qualitative metrics at first.

If you aren’t sure where to start, or if you don’t control the agenda, you can introduce impact reflections by stealth. Just listen to people’s reports on recent activity and ask “and then what happened?” The answer to that question is almost always an impact story.

“And then what happened?” in action:

“We sent out the monthly newsletter.”
– And then what happened?
“50 people learned about a new government proposal that will affect their rights.”

“I met with a prospective partner.”
– And then what happened?
“The partner offered to share our resources with a whole new audience.”

“I hosted a table at a conference.”
– And then what happened?
“We got three more signatures on our petition.”

Impact doesn’t have to be connected to targets, especially at first. It’s more important to build the habit of describing impact — any impact — than it is to judge whether the impact is “enough”. People need to feel comfortable sharing accurate information.

2. Private reflection

The second habit to start measuring impact is to find five minutes a week for private reflection. Whether you are an intern or an executive director, you should put in the effort to build this skill. Specifically, you need to train yourself to recognize what impact looks like and build the habit of reflecting on past work.

This is so simple that it’s easy to overlook. Don’t. When nonprofit life gets really chaotic, you can spend months or years leaping from one activity to the next without ever reflecting on what’s happened. That buzz and excitement can fuel burnout, depression, or under-achievement if you don’t learn how to reflect.

Make sure there is time on your calendar every week. Do it now. Even five minutes at the end of the week is enough to build your habit.

Measuring impact is a way of life

Measuring impact is a way of thinking about your work. It’s a way of talking about your work and a way of doing your work. It’s not just spreadsheets and logic models and planning sessions and reports.

If you’ve found it hard to start measuring impact, it might be because you are getting hung up on defining your impact or trying to figure out how to measure it technically. Those are very important, but they’re harder skills to master. 

The most important thing you can do is to embrace the mindset — first, personally. And then, institutionally.

You need to start somewhere, so focus on building the habit first. After that, the tougher bits won’t seem so tough.

How to make time for impact measurement

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