My Starting Point for Measuring Impact

Over the holidays I was with friends I hadn’t seen in a while and a few did not know about my MS diagnosis and how it lead to volunteer work with EMCN.

“I’ve be helping guide one of their teams through the human-centered design process” I explained “by convening social innovation labs and nudging them to think beyond ‘the way they have always done things‘”

“MS has limited the number of productive hours I have in a day” I continued “so I want them to matter.  This means I’m also keenly interested in evaluating the impact of what we do”

 “Sounds interesting!” one person said “how do you measure the impact of an initiative?” 

A good question to which I realized I did not have a concrete answer.  I alluded to examples I read about and when I still received a glazed look of incomprehension I moved on to technical evaluation jibber-jabber I heard in podcasts. As a last resort I distracted the person with the snack tray.

Which leaves me with an unanswered question. So I started looking more closely at what I actually want to accomplish.

If I were going to dedicate my limited hours in a day to measuring the impact of an initiative, what would that look like?

As of today, this is where my thinking has landed me. (Initiative includes program, project, service, initiative…..)

One.  The initiative swims in the constant churn of complex dynamic challenges.   

Two.  The initiative gains momentum from learning about the ways in which it is not making a difference in people’s lives.

Three.  The initiative is emergent.   

Four.  The initiative is fueled by possibility.

Five.  Any evaluation of the initiative will need to embrace One, Two, Three and Four.

A Guide to Actionable Measurement

How organizations make decisions has begun to garner more of my interest as I delve further into the murky undertow of impact measurement.  Recently, I came across  A Guide to Actionable Measurement (17 pages) offering a glimpse into what influences resource and fund allocation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  It’s clear. It’s succinct.  It’s different.

To begin, they actually articulate why they are evaluating and how the data will be used.

Our philosophy and approach emphasize measurement done for a specific purpose or action. We recognize the most elegant evaluation is only meaningful if its findings are used to inform decisions and strengthen our work to improve people’s lives.

Our approach is driven by three basic principles: 1) Measurement should be designed with a purpose in mind — to inform decisions and/or actions; 2) We do not measure everything but strive to measure what matters most; 3) Because the foundation’s work is organized by strategies, the data we gather help us learn and adapt our initiatives and approaches.”  (Actionable Measurement Guide Cover Letter)

Being able to create impactful interventions to complex problems relies on informative evaluation striking an effective balance between learning (improving something) and accountability (proving something).   Both are needed and valuable for understanding how and why an intervention is effective or ineffective.

At present we are super-proficient at accountability evaluation.  How many?  How often?  Numbers in a spreadsheet.

Unfortunately our evaluation efforts often fail to make meaning from the numbers.   In what ways did reaching the target make a difference?   How did the intervention ‘move the needle’ on the problem it is trying to address? 

Putting together an evaluation approach designed to answer these deeper questions can be stymied by the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start or the tendency to build something unnecessarily complicated.  Combing through the Guide to Actionable Measurement has revealed a few tips.

Begin by looking at the language being used to describe the evaluation approach.   The Foundation is intentional about including phrases like ‘strategic intent‘, ‘theory of action‘, and ‘actionable measurement‘.  As an example, using strategic intent over strategic plan has an indelible influence on how the strategy is developed, deployed and measured.

Another manageable place to start is The Actionable Measurement Matrix (Exhibit 4, Page 6 of The Guide). It’s an example of how an illustrative visual can connect activities of a single intervention to the broader strategic intent being deployed to address a complex problem.

Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is careful to acknowledge and measure its role in the creation of the problem being addressed.. Externally, they want to know how their activities as an advocate for policy change have impacted the issues they are try to influence.  Internally, they want to know how their interactions with grantees have impacted interventions and ultimately the problem being addressed.

Podcast Pick: SSIR – Whose Story Are We Telling? (Andrew Means)

Before hearing Andrew Means on the SSIR podcast, I would listen to the stories Not-for-Profit organizations tell about their work and couldn’t help but be inspired.  Hearing the exceptional rags-to-riches story about a person experiencing homelessness that used an NPO’s employment program and now manages a local million dollar company would move me to open my wallet.

Another common narrative is based in data.  After hearing that upon completion of the employment program 85% of participants (people experiencing homelessness) became employed, I became convinced the program is ‘doing something right‘.

Look more closely at the stories and you’ll notice they have two common deficiencies.

First, they fail to link the complex nature of the problem to the need for their program.  As a complex problem, homelessness is multi-faceted with causes sprouting from racism, poverty, abuse, family violence, mental illness, and addiction to name a few.  Are you able to articulate how the employment program addresses some of these broader facets of homelessness?

Second, the stories tell us what has been accomplished in the past but fail to articulate why it matters for the future.  Has the story about the employment program taught us about the ways in which being employed will impact people experiencing homelessness in the future?

Means believes our stories need to go beyond our comfortable narratives to include how the program/organization has impacted the broader systemic context.

Yes. Impact.  When I think about measuring impact I am immediately overwhelmed by where to start while remembering past attempts rife with pitfalls and blind alleys.  But Means believes it’s the key to making progress on complex, systemic, nasty, intractable social problems and he has a tidy little formula to get us started.

World with your organization – World without your organization = Impact of your organization 

Tidy to say. Still messy to do.  Fortunately Means gives us a couple tips and some excellent examples to get us thinking about starting.

Counter-factuals:  provide us with an accounting of what would have happened if the organization/program had never existed.  This would mean asking how many of the participants getting a job after completing the employment program would have landed employment anyway.  Then setting this against the 85%.

Displacement: helps us articulate how our work causes ripples in the broader context.  It might mean asking how many participants getting a job after completing the employment program are filling positions otherwise filled by equally qualified people already in the labour market and setting this against the 85% too.

Granted. Quantifying displacement and counter-factuals can be time-consuming and possibly expensive.  But Means is nudging us towards authentically confronting the gap between what we want to accomplish and what we are actually accomplishing. 

The result will be a community making more informed decisions about contributing towards outcomes we actually want to achieve rather than outcomes we pretend we are achieving.

When we join the crowd at the Annual General Meeting, it is with the expectation that we will hear the stories that make us feel like we are in the presence of something that matters.  But the stories are stuck in a rut.  They have a predictable plot involving the usual characters.  Think the movie Star Wars.

Means is nudging us towards telling more complex stories by introducing compelling storylines and new characters illustrating the relationship between complex problems and our work.  Think the movie Interstellar.

 

Whose Story Are We Telling? Featuring Andrew Means from Stanford Social Innovation Review Podcast