Once upon an outcome: effective impact stories

Rowan Boase is a consultant with NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She delivers training and works on projects that build evaluation capacity. She formerly worked for the environmental charity, Global Action Plan and the United Kingdom Committee for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF UK), she also volunteers with The Youth Funding Network.
What’s the best story that you’ve heard lately? I’m guessing that you probably didn’t read it in an impact report.

Us charities don’t always communicate our outcomes and impact in the most compelling and accessible way. Dull, dry reports are too often left to gather dust, their potential to help us make a bigger difference in the future wasted.

Borrowing techniques from storytelling can help us all to change that. In a new how-to guide on NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit, I give some simple steps you can take to ‘storify’ how you share information about your outcomes and impact.

To inspire you to create your own impact story, I’ve picked a few of my favourite examples of good storytelling to share with you.

A scene well set

Student Hubs do a great job of drawing in their audience by firstly laying out the problem they want to solve. Through describing the need for their work – students lacking support to take social action – we not only are more convinced that the work is important, it makes us want to read on! How will the students fare in this struggle and what role will Student Hubs play? Setting up this tension from the start keeps us scrolling down to find out about their work and the difference they make.

A gripping plot line

All good stories have a well thought out narrative arc, to keep the audience on the edge of their seats until the end. This is perfectly illustrated by this video about the work of Z2K, a charity providing advice and support to vulnerable debtors.

The story begins with three people, our main characters, describing life as normal. It feels familiar and you can imagine yourself in their shoes. Then, something happens – the financial crisis hits or their relationship breaks down – and suddenly their lives are turned upside down.

As the story continues, the people describe their struggles with debt and poverty. Having them speak directly to you about their personal experiences is powerful. There are lots of ups and downs along the journeys they describe, with Z2K greatly helping them. But you’re still not sure exactly how, or if, there will be a happy ending, so you keep watching.

Ultimately, there are some positive outcomes for the people at the end of the film – housing improved and debts now under control. And now knowing their stories, I felt I had a much better appreciation of just how significant these differences were.

The big picture and the personal

When telling your impact story, how can you combine words and numbers to show both the breadth and depth of your work? Streetwise Opera’s Evaluation Tree does this very well, giving an accessible, visual account of the difference they make. By pairing users’ voices with outcome statistics, we get a personal and intimate picture of the difference they’ve made in a person’s life, but we also understand the scale of their work. For example:

97% [of service users] felt their mental health had improved – ‘When I have one of my weepy moments at home, I just remember one of our songs and how we all sing it together.’

Short and sweet

Apparently Ernest Hemingway said he could write an enagaging story in six words or less. His example was: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never used’. There are also various blogs and a whole movement of ‘Twitter fiction’, sharing powerful stories that say a lot with few words.

Could this work for an impact story too? Here’s my attempt at telling the NCVO Charities Evaluation Services impact story in six words: ‘supporting greater knowledge, learning and change’. Ok, it’s definitely not Hemingway, but it does sum up the difference we make very concisely.

Tweet us your impact story

We would love to hear your impact stories – in no more than 140 characters! Tweet us @cesonline #sixwordimpactstory and we’ll share them.

Read the guide on how to tell your impact story for more tips and guidance.


Winning hearts and minds: using theory of change to demonstrate your impact

How can you use theory of change in your organisation? Join our Annual Conference workshop and discover what it can do for you.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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