Impact measurement: start small and build as you grow

Don't leave impact measurement until you're bigger, richer and have more time - that day may never come, says Dave Masom. CAN Invest's senior social business analyst urges enterprises to follow Darwin's footsteps and take an evolutionary approach.

At CAN Invest, it’s no secret that we believe impact measurement should be a core activity for any impact-led organisation. However, we often encounter mission-driven organisations that don’t know how to start measuring their impact.

With a significant amount of guidance available for free and online, it’s not a lack of information that is the problem. A persistent view is that impact measurement is expensive or resource intensive. 

Impact measurement specialists will cry that this shouldn’t be the case because a key principle of impact measurement is proportionality. Proportionality is the idea that impact measurement should be proportional to the size, scale and maturity of an organisation.

However, I think the problem is that there is currently little guidance regarding what proportionality means in practice. To me, proportionality is all about function, and I’d like to explain why using an analogy. I will then use this analogy to outline a way to think about developing your impact measurement capabilities in a way that doesn’t break the bank. 

The evolution of the eye

The eye has been touted as an example of a refutation of evolutionary theory, because of its complexity. Put very simply, the argument is ‘what use is half an eye?’ It seems impossible to remove half an eye without losing its entire function. Imagine cutting an eye in half – the result wouldn’t be of much use!

In fact, there is significant evidence of the evolution of the eye, based on its function. Charles Darwin first listed different stages of eye evolution in the Origin of the Species. 

For example, even a simple light-sensitive cell can provide ‘on/off’ cues - useful if you wish to use light for photosynthesis, or escape a predator which is causing a shadow. Basic constructions similar to a pinhole camera can provide an actual image to identify food, predators and mates. Complex eyes like a human’s have components that allow vision to be maintained in different environments, focus images more clearly, identify objects by their colour, and so on.

The point of this analogy is that impact measurement can seem like an eye – try and cut it in half and it seems useless. However, if we start by identifying what the function of impact measurement is, we can evolve our impact measurement systems from something initially very simple.

Setting out on your impact measurement journey

Here’s a rough process for how you should begin your impact measurement journey:

  1. Define your impact measurement objectives. Why are you doing the exercise? If you have limited resources and multiple objectives, prioritise those objectives to limit your scope.
  2. Identify the capabilities, processes and knowledge you’ll need to meet your objective(s). For example, maybe you need to understand what outcomes your beneficiaries are actually experiencing – focus on building effective stakeholder engagement. Maybe delivering one outcome is core to your success – focus on identifying the best way of measuring it.
  3. Implement whatever you decided in 2.
  4. Review what this has told you. Is it helpful? Did it meet your objective? If yes, can you refine it further? If no, why not – would something else have worked better?

It’s evolution, baby

It’s important to note that when you first start to measure your impact, a significant portion of the ‘budget’ you have put to the exercise – whether time or money – will go to setting up processes, research, thinking, and so on, and some time will then go to actually measuring and analysing that data.

In the next reporting period, although the weighting between ‘development’ and ‘delivery’ may change, you should keep aside some resource to further develop your approach. Consider your next objective, or how you can improve how you are answering your first objective.

It may be helpful to lay out a roadmap – a document which sets out what improvements you will make to your impact measurement framework over the coming years, along different dimensions (such as data collection, defining indicators, analytical capability, Theory of Change), to keep you on track. 

Avoid the big bang

Being proportional about impact measurement means that you should only invest a small amount of time and energy into it when your organisation is early stage, and invest more as your organisation matures.

Making smart investments early on will make subsequent investments more valuable because they can build on what you already have. Conversely, if you delay in setting up a simple impact measurement process now (or invest in the wrong things), then setting up impact measurement is likely to be a bigger headache in the future – even more so if your organisation has grown in complexity.

It’s easy to think ‘we can leave this exercise for when we have a bit more time and resource on our hands’. Don’t. In today’s world, that idyllic point on the horizon when you have time to kill is often an ever-shifting one. So remember: start small and build based on function – keep what is useful, and cut what is not. That’s what evolution is all about.


Photo credit: Benjamin Esham