Beyond Measurement

by Tris Lumley, SIAA Trustee

I’ve spent the last decade talking to people about impact measurement. Evangelising about its importance within the social sector. Encouraging people to put more effort into measuring results. Sharing experiences and learning with other fellow travellers along their impact journeys.

Yet in the last year or two, it’s been gradually dawning on me that actually there’s a danger of getting the wrong message out there when we focus too much on measurement. And I’ve been waking up to the importance of getting beyond measurement.

Here are just a few reasons why. You may have many more from your own experience.

Measurement can be seen to be a technical, and therefore alienating arena. Normal people working in charities often assume that impact measurement is necessarily a complex and technical area that they won’t be able to conquer on their own. They assume they will never have the skills they need to measure their results, so they’ll always have to rely on external evaluators to help them. While there certainly are technical skills associated with evaluation, social research and impact measurement, it just doesn’t follow that there isn’t an appropriate, proportionate level at which these skills can, and should, be built internally.

Measurement can seem impossible or at least incredibly difficult for more complex or intangible outcomes, so sometimes people assume it’s not worth thinking about impact at all. By making that assumption, they can miss out on everything they might learn by exploring the area anyway, and working out how close they can get to measuring impact.

But most fundamentally, measurement is often seen as the start of the discussion about impact, and it simply isn’t. When I think about impact, I refer to a cycle of impact practice—starting with planning what impact you want to create, then managing the delivery of your work, then measuring its impact, then reviewing, learning and communicating. So measurement is the third stage in a four stage cycle. Another way of saying this is to state the obvious—that you can only measure your progress against explicit goals; or in reverse that you cannot measure impact unless you’ve clearly defined what it is you’re trying to achieve.

It may seem incredibly obvious to say that we need clear goals before we can measure impact. But in fact experience tells me that the field of impact measurement would move forward a great deal if we were clearer about the need to define goals before we set out, and to be explicit with our theory of change, or impact plan, showing how we think those goals will be achieved through the work we do.

Every evaluator or impact measurement consultant will tell you that charities ask them to come in and help them to measure their results, but that what turns out to be the necessary first step is to go back to the goals and strategy, and clarify them, before any work can be done on impact measurement.

So we need to, as a field, go beyond measurement. To defining goals, before we attempt to measure our progress towards them. To working out how we manage our work, to deliver the greatest impact. To establishing ways of learning from our impact measurement, building evidence into how we improve our work in the future.

If we do, I think we’ll find a much broader interest in what we’re proposing than when we talk just about measuring impact. Because while measurement can seem forbidding—the preserve of the impact geek—clarity about goals and strategies is something everyone can get into, and everyone in the social sector feels they have a connection with.

If we can move the conversation on to somewhere beyond measurement, as we’re trying to with SIAA’s annual conference this year, I think we’ll find ourselves in exciting new territory. Where there will be greater demand for analysts’ help and services, and where analysts will also have greater influence across the social sector.

For more information about SIAA’s 2013 Annual Conference Beyond Measurement click here.

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