Impact Management: a chance to put the reindeer before the sleigh?!

Ben Carpenter from SVUK looks back at a year of impact management.

They will look back on 2017 and say “Ah, the year of impact management” – well, maybe, or maybe it will only be me saying that (to an empty room)! In all seriousness, it has been a privilege this year to lead Social Value UK’s role in the Impact Management Programme; an ambitious social sector collaboration funded by Access Foundation to help organisations get better at impact management. Why? So that they create more social impact and diversify their income (so says the theory of change!).

There has been a clear journey for the impact management revellers this year and as cheesy as that sounds let me tear you away from your yule time festivities to talk you through it!

What’s the point of all this measurement?

We began the year running outreach events – rolling in to town and talking about the new ‘term’ on the block; “forget impact measurement, that’s so 2016 – it’s all about impact management now, don’t you know?” Cue, frantic discussions about the differences between measurement and management; “don’t you need to measure in order to manage?”, “Do we really need a new science?” and “Haven’t we all got enough to be doing?” Yes, no and yes.

Putting our healthy scepticism to one side, this was an important phase: conversations began to move beyond measurement. Rather than worrying too much about the how, we were addressing the why and challenging ourselves; “why do we measure that if we don’t do anything with the data?”. The conversations dared to consider “what if we had no funder to report to? – would we still collect data?”. Thankfully the answers were largely yes! In data terms we might no longer have the cart before the horse (or the sleigh before the reindeer?). We talked passionately about how being accountable to your beneficiaries means relentlessly innovating to create the most impact you can (with the resources you have). I wrote a blog that wondered if impact management is a ‘state of mind’. It was a great time to be alive.

Yeah, yeah but how do we do it?

Heady stuff indeed. But once we sobered up we still had some of the old questions; “how do we do impact management?” and “what does it look like?”. Together with Social Enterprise UK we ran co-design workshops that drilled into the detail a bit more. New Philanthropy Capital distilled this feedback and concluded that impact management requires a specific type of organisational culture, data and planning. These are the three building blocks of the programme and they’ve proved to be useful considerations for organisations as they grapple with impact management.

We held more co-design workshops and developed a cohort of organisations across six regions of England. These passionate and productive sessions led to the identification of five types of data and whilst this may seem like a simple categorisation of data it’s provided many eureka moments.

When discussing data we’ve forced the questions; “why do you collect this data”? or “what decisions can you make with this data (or information)? We made a rule: “Imagine you have no funder – you only collected information to help you improve your services and make changes”.

Are we already doing impact management?

The organisations we have worked with were at the beginning of their impact management thinking and entered this subject with an air of trepidation – as you might approach a long overdue check-up with the dentist. However, it’s been great to turn this trepidation into optimism and even confidence about impact management. It might not be so painful after all… turns out we’re doing it already?

I firmly believe that organisations are continuously making changes to their services. “It’s just what we do” is the common response. Of course it is, these are people who want to provide a good service so they are already in the habit of continuous improvement. At our most recent events we’ve collected examples of these changes and asked what data (or information) they’ve used before making that change. This is impact management and maybe we’re already doing it? I wrote a blog about this, suggesting that all we need to do is recognise it, do it in a systematic way and use more data to support these decisions.

What does the future hold?

There is still lots to do. Whilst it turns out that many organisations are good at collecting

  1. user data
  2. engagement data
  3. feedback data

There is still work to be done in collecting this systematically (bringing in some outcomes and impact data) and routinely using all types of data where possible to improve their services.

We can help organisations with this through our online resources and our network of peer learning groups.

But you cannot keep the white elephant, in our case the ‘funder’, out of the room for long. Despite our efforts to imagine a world where funders don’t dictate data requirements, it never lasts. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is far too common to hear that organisations are prioritising data that their funder wants before considering what data would be useful for them.

I do not want to have a go at funders (they deserve a good Christmas too) – after all, their demands are motivated by accountability. So, rather than get angry with funders this Christmas, let’s turn this into a positive. Successful organisations are the ones that set the data agenda with their funders. Organisations that show they are in control of their data will earn the respect and trust of a funder.

My wish for 2018 is that organisations prioritise the data they need to improve their programmes. That means creating a system that works for them, that collects multiple types of data and tracks how it informs decision making. The system needs to be proportionate and by that I mean the data collected is good enough for the decision it informs. An organisation that can do this has put the data sleigh firmly in place and the reindeers are dashing merrily through the snow, and I didn’t even mention the man with the white beard.

To find out more about the Impact Management Programme, contact or sign up to our mailing list.