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Impact Measurement; a big waste of time?

Measurement is the new black in the social and philanthropic sectors. These sectors are abuzz with research papers, consultancies and conferences all rightly dedicated to doing better at ascertaining and quantifying social impact. At United Way we strongly support these endeavours and have been global innovators in introducing outcome measurement as far back as the 80’s in the United States. In all of this activity it’s critical that we remember why we monitor and evaluate.

Measurement is not an end in itself but simply a tool to help us determine whether or not we are fulfilling our social mandate to improve lives and build stronger communities. These tools should be used primarily to answer two simple questions:

‘As a result of our learning from the year prior what did we do differently?’ and ‘What have we learnt this year and how this will influence what we will do differently next year?’

These questions are part of the DNA of the best organisations- whether they are from the corporate, government or community sectors. Yes we need new and creative ideas but the real priority in social innovation is the incremental and hard won improvements that come from asking the questions that close the loop between what we have done, what we have learnt and what we will improve. If the data that comes from the monitoring and evaluation processes is seen as the end point then I’m afraid the process is a waste of time and resources.

Here are 4 must do’s to ensure you make the most of your measurement processes:

  • Collect- bring the data together from the various sources and ensure the most critical indicators are not lost in the detail of the information
  • Collaborate- draw together your diverse stakeholder groups to reflect on what can be learnt and improved from this exercise. Narrative is an important complement to data but it’s critical that this is balanced with participation from community members, front line workers, management, partners and funders
  • Communicate- share the insights with your stakeholders in a way that’s accessible and relevant to them. This requires some segmentation of the material for different audiences but transparency is critical
  • Commitment- Put a stake in the ground for what will change in the future and what you expect this to look like in terms of outputs, outcomes and impacts

At United Way whilst we don’t always hit the mark we certainly strive to do these things. This is particularly the case as we pioneer new forms of collaboration increasingly referred to as Collective Impact. This adds a new layer of complexity which we have sought to begin to address in our latest report Collaborating for Community Impact: our journey so far.

This is a challenge that other funders also grapple with as they report on a variety of outputs, outcomes and impact achieved with and through their community partners. To that end we report against the key functions of:

  • Connecting – acting as social agents of change bringing community, government and corporate organisations together to build on their individual capacities and build greater collective impact,
  • Investing – in like-minded community organisations through the support of our corporate partners and individual donors
  • Mobilising – the caring power of the wider community, especially through volunteering; and
  • Strengthening – the capacity and capability of our corporate and community partners.

So is Impact Measurement a big waste of time? I would have to say yes if it’s seen as an end in itself. The data is great but it’s only 20% of the exercise, the 80% is then sharing with stakeholders what’s been learnt and the real work of applying these learnings to improving practice.

Doug Taylor – CEO United Way Australia

Doug joined United Way Sydney in 2007 and in his role as CEO focused on developing the Community Impact strategy that addresses the education, income and health needs of local communities and instigated the Common Cause Strategy in Sydney (www.commoncause.com.au). This work has culminated in a number of Collective Impact strategies including ReadLearnSucceed. He has played a leadership role in nationalising United Way’s work which resulted in him becoming United Way Australia’s inaugural CEO. He is frequently engaged to advise United Way member’s internationally, has helped developed the organisation’s Asia Pacific Corporate strategy and is a Member of the United Way Worldwide Membership Accountability Committee. He has also chaired the United Way Worldwide Professional Council and has sat on the Commonwealth’s Volunteer Policy Advisory Groups and is a Board Member of the School for Social Entrepreneurs and Co-Chair of Sandpit (formerly Emerging Leaders for Social Change).

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