The Art of Impact

March 3, 2017 Charlie Davenport

View and download the presentations here.

       

On March 1st, Blackbaud hosted the latest in its ‘The Art of…’ series of evening thought leadership events. ‘The Art of Impact’ was a fascinating evening focused on demonstrating impact and outcomes as a non-profit organisation. The audience of non-profit leaders heard talks from two experts, followed by a lively Q&A.
The speakers:
 
Matt Stevenson-Dodd has been CEO of Street League since 2010. He’s committed to total transparency in reporting the charities successes – and where they could have done better.
 
David Hounsell is Head of Impact at fundraising consultancy Aleron, and was formerly Evidence and Impact Director at The Children’s Society.
 
Here are are some of the highlights from our speakers’ talks:

 

1) The charity sector is brilliant at storytelling, but…

 
…many charities could tell their stories more powerfully. A good story needs a good ending – an outcome if you will – and it should be the tangible, real-life impact. Take Kids Company as an (overused) example. A charity that boasted a CEO so full of life she seemed like a fictional character; a charity which spread positive messages through powerful PR and high-profile relationships. But the ignominious collapse and lack of real results hit on an important point in the sector. Sure, we can all spin a story, but when the hard questions are being asked do we have the answers? Or as Warren Buffet once said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.”
 

2) Is spreading the good news the same thing as spreading the right news?

 
Charities are quick to come to the conclusion that, for example, they have helped 80% of the people who went through Progamme X, or that over 1,000 16-25 year-olds were positively impacted by their work in the last 12 months. But what about the missing numbers? It’s great to share the positive stories we have, but can we really rebuild trust with the public by acting like all we do is good; that there is never anyone left behind? Street League took a seriously bold step with their last Annual Report, deciding to lead with their shortcomings. Instead of focussing on the hundreds of people they had placed into full-time employment, they led with the 109 people that they couldn’t help this past year. Admittedly, the board was nervous leading with this but agreed it was the right thing to do. Matt explained the consensus that “As a charity, it’s important to be open and honest, show the public that you can improve, and most importantly that you are trying to improve.”
 

3) ‘Outcomes to Impact’ is a journey

 
David advised the group to be under no illusions that the transition from storytelling to measuring impact is a long journey. But it’s something the private sector does well, continually reaping the benefits of being able to show their impact effectively; the stock market being an obvious example. This kind of thinking would be a significant change in mindset. At The Children’s Society, David was told it would be five years before he saw any real impact. He pointed out that this is what will scare some charities off – why invest valuable money, time and effort into leading a huge shift in mindset and processes to wait five years to see the results – particularly in the current media climate.
 
Matt gave us his own case study of this journey, at Street League. He explained that being able to show your impact is an ever-changing process, from measuring participation as ‘impact’ to moving onto measuring tangible outcomes. This was the real turning point for Street League, after which they were able to say with utter confidence that they had helped a specific number of people.
 
– Compare: “14,000 people were helped by Street League over three years, with:
 
– “14,000 people entered a Street League programme, of whom 11,000 completed the course, 6,000 went on to have a job for six months or longer, and 1,000 were unaccounted for.”
 
How much more compelling, transparent and – frankly – honest is that?
 
After ‘Outcomes’, naturally, comes ‘Impact’. This is when Street League really homed-in on who they were helping, to drive better decision making:
 
1) By researching various socio-economic factors across the UK they came up with measurements. For example, they applied different measurements of success to someone who stays in a job for three months as compared to someone still employed after 12.
 
2) Second was Big Data, already a buzzword in the jargon dictionary, but something that all non-profits need to harness. Big Data is often misunderstood, but it simply means being able to gather the data that you have and learn from the picture it presents. For example, a charity who focusses on youth unemployment may look at data from the region where they work, and learn whether unemployment has got better or worse. And from that, decide whether it is the right thing to continue to focus effort in that location.
 
After their talks, David and Matt led a Q&A during which the floor opened up to a discussion. One line from Matt really stood out: “If we as a sector want to see a real change in mindsets and being able to show our impact, we should invest as much money into our measurement teams as we do with our finance teams.” This provoked some debate of course, but the underlying point is a challenge to the whole sector. We aren’t holding impact in the same degree of importance as revenue. It’s all well-and-good to increase revenue by X% for the three years running – but has that actually made any difference?

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