“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it. When you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.”
So said Lord Kelvin in 1883 in a lecture he gave to the Institution of Civil Engineers. Admittedly, he was talking about physical sciences and the measure of electrical units, yet the spirit of his critique looms large in the minds of many who today seek to conquer the measurement of social impact. Of course, it is easy to mock the pursuit of impact measurement as a fool’s errand; to declaim that the full majesty of human nature cannot be captured in simple metrics. Yet there really is no excuse for anyone in the business of social change to shirk their responsibility to demonstrate the positive difference they are making.
That was why I was delighted to join the Access Foundation’s Impact Management Programme Investment and Commissioning Panel last year, to help distribute £1.8 million to up to 50 social sector organisations, to help them improve their impact management and secure new investment. Delivered by a consortium led by New Philanthropy Capital under the expert guidance of Rob Abercrombie, the Impact Management Programme aims to build the capacity of charities, social enterprises and community businesses to measure and manage their impact. This means supporting them to analyse and respond to the data they collect, using it to change and improve their programmes and services.
The panel met four times in total between November 2017 and March 2018. Panel membership was deliberately diverse, with representation around the table from foundations, social investment and financial intermediaries (SIFIs), commissioners and frontline support organisations. This made for a rich conversation – and sometimes downright disagreement! The task was made no easier by the sheer range of applications that came in, from organisations working in wholly different sectors, at entirely different geographical scales, and with annual turnovers from £100k to £25m – all looking for grants of no more than £50,000.
Under Rob’s superb leadership, and with first class administrative support from Deborah Smart at the Social Investment Business, the panel nevertheless found its way through this maze of applications, in the end awarding the full £1.8 million to 40 organisations, ranging from Noise Solution, offering music mentoring programs with people facing challenging circumstances in the East of England, to Relate, the largest provider of relationship support across the UK. The decision-making process itself was a balanced combination of informal voting at the outset, to see where there was broad agreement in favour of or against particular applicants, followed by a detailed review of those in the middle where different voices around the table often brought fresh and unexpected insights. More than once I found myself reversing an early decision against an applicant based on the contributions of my fellow panel members.
The debate enabled us to interrogate our respective hypotheses about which organisations or sectors could most benefit from impact management funding. Moving beyond discussions about the applicants’ impact management ambitions, we reflected on organisation size, current financial position, the perceived sustainability of their financial model, trends of growth or consolidation in particular sectors, and organisations who had opted in or out of federated charity models. Using everyone’s collective expertise, we selected a varied portfolio of grantees doing projects that we felt will benefit their respective users and their wider sectors.
Of course, now that the grants have been awarded, the real work starts. Success for me is very simple. It is to make the measurement and management of impact as boring as bookkeeping – and as essential. Just as no chief executive worth their salt would ignore their cashflow, I look forward to the day when understanding impact is treated with equal seriousness. There will never be a simple, single metric of social progress – nor should there be – but there is so much more that could be done by charities, social enterprises and community businesses to assure themselves that they are genuinely improving the lives of their beneficiaries.