By Sandy Blackburn-Wright. The following article appeared in Generosity Magazine on  5 May 2016

Why does impact matter, how has it become important and how do we measure it? These are fundamental questions that we have been asking recently but they also speak to the very heart our ongoing search for meaning.

One of the most fundamental human needs is for validation – “do you see me, do I matter to you, does my life make a difference to those around me?”. We hunger for affirmation of the value of our lives, our opinions and the meaning we create. Social media gives us a public platform to seek such validation in an immediate, if less satisfying form. The shift towards articulating and recognising the impact that organisations create resonates with that same basic desire. Does the work I’m doing, does the organisation that I’m pouring all my time and energy into really matter in the scheme of things? Does it have an impact and how will I know?

I spent 15 years living and working in South Africa and during that time, I had the privilege of living in black townships and learning several African languages. The way people greet each other is so profound. In Zulu, the greeting translates as “I see you”. The peoples of the Kalahari Desert use the most affirming of greetings, “I saw you from afar, I see you now, and you are beautiful”. African culture is built on the concept of “ubuntu” and the idea that your humanity can only be realised in your relationships with others. Ubuntu is not a legal state of entitlement, it is about the positive impact that you have on another human being. And only in expressing that impact can you be truly human.

I like to believe that we are starting to move from an era of valuing what you own as an expression of your place in the world, to valuing the impact you create. Some value a light environmental footprint or a social contribution, others create cultural or artistic value. As we think more about our own impact, it also follows that we want to better understand the impact of government and the business sector. A simple understanding of the financial outcomes of our institutions is no longer enough.  Triple bottom line reporting, ethical manufacturing and fair trade are becoming more important in our buying decisions. Political parties’ environmental and social policies and their impacts are becoming more important in our voting decisions. Greater transparency is also required of the not-for-profit sector and of philanthropy. Doing something is no longer good enough, we need to know if that activity is resulting in positive change. The big question is therefore, how will we know?

Impact measurement has moved to front of mind for many not-for-profit organisations and philanthropic organisations in the past few years. There is a growing understanding that we need to move from measuring inputs and outputs to measuring outcomes. The difficulty arises when many government contracts and philanthropic grants require acquittal reporting in the form of the number of programs delivered, the number of people who attended etc. If outcomes measures are being incorporated into reporting, they aren’t as yet replacing input and output measures and including them is merely increasing the reporting burden at this stage. Once we truly understand impact or outcome measurement, our reporting requirements will streamline. Social Impact Bonds (SIBS) offer us the purest form of outcome measurement at the moment, but often the most burdensome. In Australia, many of the state governments either doing or exploring SIBs have a strong preference for the use of control groups to demonstrate the achievement of outcomes and whilst this is the most valid form of verification, it’s also not practical if we are to take impact measurement to scale. Requiring a control group comparison on every government contract will skyrocket the costs of contracting as well as force a group of people to not receive services to demonstrate the positive impact on another. We need another solution if we are to scale.

The definition of an impact or an outcome is to demonstrate a positive change in the life of the person the organisation is seeking to help. This is why measuring attendance at workshops or in programs, or output measures, is ineffective. We need to track what changes are happening over time. If we are working with young people exiting out of home care, we need to be measuring a cluster of conditions that speak to their wellbeing, such as:

  • Are they able to engage with government agencies to secure a medicare card, a driver’s license or a benefit payment
  • If they have a history of offending or drug and alcohol abuse, does the frequency or severity decrease over time
  • Are they engaging with family and friends over time and able to sustain those relationships if appropriate
  • Are they able to sustaining a lease, over what time period and does this period increase
  • Are they able to sustain employment, full time or part time and does the length of time in a role increase
  • Do they volunteer in community, engage in sporting clubs or cultural events on a regular basis and is that sustained
  • Do they enrol for and complete any further education and training
  • How do they feel about themselves and their future. Are they growing in confidence, able to make new friends, leave the house, use public transport and does this improve over time

Designing and implementing an impact measurement framework requires that we work with people comprehensively and engage with them over a long period. Impact is not created overnight as the issues people face are interconnected and rooted in the complexities of family, community, government and workplaces. Input and output measures seemingly value working with high numbers of people for short periods of time. So a move to impact measurement will not only validate the approaches that are working and shine a light on those that are not, it will also change the way we work in community, the way contracts are designed and acquitted and the way the sectors partner to create change. These are all good things, but most importantly, we place real people at the centre and can begin to say to them “I see you”.