From the heart: feeling the value of impact assessment

Decisions in our professional lives are often guided by our heads: rational and well thought through. Sometimes we might lead from the heart, following a desire to do good, or at least do no harm.

We’ve often made the case for impact assessment and evaluation to attract the ‘thinking person’ but perhaps it’s time to appeal to our inner senses, to the seat of compassion, caring and the motivation to respond to the world’s social injustices. Commentary after recent political events has concluded that politicians have sometimes failed to speak to people’s hearts.

So I want to ask three heart-centred questions and suggest how assessing and communicating our impact can help respond to them.

Do we know if we are really helping people?

There’s an unmistakable – though often indescribable – feeling you get when you’ve helped someone, but as charities serving a cause it’s our responsibility to check that what we feel to be true can be backed up by evidence. Can we show that we have met needs and built assets? Have we done more good rather than caused more harm?

Having a system in place to regularly check in with our beneficiaries is a way to gain confirmation of the extent to which we are helping, and will renew the motivation staff and volunteers have to continue the work that works, and modify or stop that which falls short.

Do we value and respect our diverse beneficiaries?

We usually have a particular beneficiary group in mind when we offer our services or carry out our campaigning and lobbying work. But there is rarely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution or service. Do we appreciate the diversity of views and needs?

Developing our impact practice will help to alert us to what differences we are making for whom, in what circumstances, and where we are not. It will provide pointers on who is satisfied, and who is not. We will often get a sense of what we can do to be more pluralist in the creation and implementation of our work.

Do we tell stories of success?

There will always be a place for numbers, but stories can more effectively engage people. Support for charities often follows compelling stories of success; some of the organisations we have worked with on impact have really good examples:

  • A video showing a young person’s journey as they grow in confidence, are less anxious and more engaged in education
  • An account of military service personnel who are now able to experience family life in a way they never thought possible following a traumatic event

The one thing all these stories have in common is that they are heart-warming. They appeal to our inner senses and convince us that the world has goodness in it which will triumph. They are, of course, still based on data, but presented in an engaging way. As Brene Brown says: ‘stories are just data with soul’.

Part of demonstrating your impact is being able to present your stories of success – and your stories of learning where things could have been better. Do we set ourselves up well enough to be able to find out from people what their journeys have been? Do we invest time into collecting these stories?

For some help on story-writing, see some of our recent work on the subject.

Feel it, think it, do it!

In my 14 years of supporting the sector to define and show evidence of the difference their work makes, I have learnt that we’re in the business not just of thinking, but also of feeling and doing. So if we want to further our impact practice let’s make it a holistic experience involving mind, body and soul. The last word goes to our chief executive, Stuart Etherington said in his recent state of the sector address:

‘To secure our future we all have to not only believe that we are doing the right thing but go out of our way to show it.’


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Avatar photo Shehnaaz is lead consultant for NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She has provided training and support to hundreds of organisations to develop their theories of change, outcomes monitoring frameworks, and self-evaluation processes.

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