Impact Measurement at DCU Ryan Academy

October 13, 2013

We recently spent an afternoon with the students of the Social Enterprise Masters Programme at the Ryan Academy. The room was full of social entrepreneurs, supporters and people working with charities who are looking for new angles on old problems. Innovative and inspiring ideas on how business models can support social change were abundant.

The theme of our afternoon session was on how social services can use well trialled methods support the implementation of effective impact measurement systems. We know that this is an issue not just for social enterprises (Eustace and Clark 2009) but increasingly for charities, as they struggle to convince funders of their value in the face of cuts. In the U.K impact measurement is being significantly resourced as a new cornerstone for how public money will be spent (think social bonds). But the idea isn’t so foreign, it’s what we demand of health services, (i.e. we want treatments that are proven to work), although often these ideas feel a little uncomfortable when we apply them to the human services.

Of course, such movements hold both challenges and potential for the sector and those who need these services. The biggest challenge is that impact based funding results in cherry picking of clients. From our perspective the best way to mediate these challenges and optimise the benefits – knowing what works for service users, is for charities and services providers to be articulate and informed as to their outcomes and impact measures and to be able to engage in and lead this debate.

Our discussions with the Ryan Academy Particpants, centred on how strategic models (Logic Model, Theory of Change and Social Return on Investment) can be used to assist an organization to map how they will gather the information to more effectively tell their story and show their impact. The models require various processes, inputs and expertise, but at their core have some common principles, such as:

  • Involving frontline staff – ensures realistic and real outcomes and can fundamentally change the way the way that the service is delivered.
  • Only count what matters to service users. Action follows measurement and if you are recording the wrong things then service provision may subtly adapt to meet your outcome measures while being less client focused (read John Seddon for some fantastic examples of this in the UK public service).
  • Ensure there is a system to analyse and discuss your outcome measures, involve staff and learn from your information.
  • Involve your stakeholders and bring them into your story. Tell the story in a way which is memorable and robust.To do this you need meaningful data, within an evidence based framework that includes the stories and voice of service users.One of these without the other two will always miss some of your audience. We need to speak to the heart and the head, saying what changed and how.

We know from practice, that if these and few other principles are followed, and a well trialled methodology is used, developing an impact measurement strategy can bring staff, managers and funders together in way which is vital for an organisations success and for the extension of our collective understanding of what really creates change.

About the author

Caroline Gardner is the manager Quality Matters. Caroline has a particular interest in improving outcomes for clients through smart information systems and interagency working.

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