Measuring impact: and why we should


I was on a train from Llandudno last week and I heard two people arguing about whether there was any point in giving to charity.  “Of course you should.  They do good stuff.  That’s what charities do.”

Do they?  All of them?

And what about social enterprises?  I’ve spent most of my life setting up and supporting social enterprises.  And there’s no doubt they’re all trying to ‘do good stuff’.  But how many are actually delivering any benefit?  Anecdotally we all know of some fantastic work that’s being done by social enterprises and charities.  But most of us also know of organisations where we’re less convinced: of funding that could seemingly be much better spent.

Last month I was in the Middle East with a charity helping young people into employment.  Their training programmes were achieving astonishing outcomes.  90% of young people into jobs in a region where 25% of young people are unemployed.  And they don’t just measure the number of young people they train (outputs).  They carefully track their outcomes – not just young people into employment but how many were in employment 6 months and a year later.  Clear evidence of their social impact, carefully measured and communicated.

Dig a little deeper though and I’m not convinced that they were delivering any real social impact at all.  Their success was measured by young people into jobs and job retention, so their careful beneficiary selection process took the young people who were most likely to get and retain jobs.  Most of those young people would probably have got the jobs anyway.  So called deadweight.  And since they didn’t create any new jobs, for every young person they helped, another person who would have got that job didn’t.  Displacement.  Several million pounds in foreign aid to achieve almost nothing.

That is why measuring impact is as important as delivering it.  Because if you don’t really try to measure it, you don’t actually know whether you’re achieving any good at all, or whether you’re wasting everyone’s time and money.  Or whether you’re delivering impact that is so good it should be invested in and scaled up across the country.

In Wales most of us are too busy trying to deliver social impact to try to measure it.  It seems like a lot of work to tell us what we’re pretty sure we already know.  Our budgets are too small, our staff teams too stretched.  And if we’re honest, many of us are scared that we might find out we’re working ourselves into the ground for nothing.

So let’s be honest. And let’s be courageous. And let’s embrace failure as a necessary part of success.  Let’s really try to understand if what we’re doing is worthwhile, if it could be improved, if it needs to be stopped, or needs to be scaled.

These websites are a good place to start:

If we care enough to really understand our impact, and if we’re brave enough to speak the truth, between us we could achieve so much more.  Then we could do some really good stuff.

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