Have you measured the impact of your impact measurement?

I was pleasantly surprised by the Third Sector impact conference.

That’s not something you’re really supposed to admit about a conference organised by your own organisation, but there we go: impact measurement encourages honesty.

I went along wondering if it would prove to be one for the wonks – full of technical jargon and impact-speak, incomprehensible to a humble journalist. But instead it was full of good, sensible, productive theories about how to use measurement to help your organisation.

A lot of what I learned can be encapsulated pretty well in one simple solution, put forward by Alison Braybrooks, a consultant who is working with bankers UBS to develop their CSR: if you can’t put into a single sentence what you want to do, you probably don’t really know.

So here’s how to do it, Braybrooks-style.

First, decide what problem you want to solve. Write that in a single sentence. Then, work out what you plan to do to solve it. Write that in a single sentence. Then work out what change you want to have achieved. Write that – you guessed it – in a single sentence.

If you can’t articulate what you want to measure, and measure it, relatively simply, she suggested, you’re doing it wrong.

This feeds into another concept much in evidence – the “theory of change” principle – which says impact measurement should primarily be used not to measure whether you’ve succeeded – although that’s certainly important to know – but to identify what changes you need to make to succeed next time.

Failure is a useful outcome, said philanthropist Nick Jenkins, so long as you know why you failed, and tell everyone else, so they don’t fail in your footsteps.

This leads to yet another idea much in evidence at the conference: don’t work out how to measure impact after you’ve finished, because it will be pretty hard to tell whether you’ve achieved something if you don’t know what you were trying to do.

And if you’re a funder, don’t insist on an impact measurement tool that tells you whether your money has been well spent, but is no use to the organisation you’re funding. Also, don’t insist on spending so much money on impact measurement that the people you’re funding don’t have much cash left to get anything done.

Finally there was another message for funders and specialists, put forward by Caroline Forster of the Social Investment Business, who said that too often these organisations demand a lot of measurement from others, but don’t do enough themselves.

I’m pleased she mentioned it, because when phrased another way, this is actually my favourite question to ask impact measurements specialists: have you measured the impact of your impact measurement?

P.S. Please respond and let me know whether you found this useful. I would like to measure the impact of my impact measurement blog.