It can be difficult to measure the impact of your work, particularly when you are unclear about what impact means to your organization. Often, there is confusion between the outcomes of a particular process and the ultimate impact that the outcomes have on the world. To understand how outputs are different from impacts—and why you should measure impact in addition to outcomes—it is helpful to understand what goes into the process of achieving impact.
Framing outputs and impact
The process of getting from inputs to impact involves a number of intermediate steps linked to each other through a series of cause-and-effect relationships represented by a causal chain (we’ll get to that shortly!). For the purposes of illustration, let’s choose a very simple example: your organization is building a new platform to increase donations and—ultimately—improve the quality of the work your organization does. In order to achieve this impact, you would start by putting in the resources, time, and expertise needed to build the platform: these are your inputs. You would move forward with doing the work to build a new platform: these are considered activities. Out of this process, you would end up with a tangible result (in this case, a donation platform): this is your output.
At this point, you now have a tangible product to use to increase donations. Say you have launched your new platform and your donations have increased by 250%: these are your outcomes or quantitative observed changes that your platform has helped you achieve. While these are important numbers to understand and capture, this is typically where measurement stops. While the outcome tells you whether you were able to increase donations, they fail to tell you what the ultimate impact of those donations was.
This brings us to impact. Impact is the end result sought by embarking upon the development of the new platform to begin with. While outcomes are a means to achieve specified ends, impacts are the ends themselves–whether a direct or indirect result of the outcomes. In our example, the impact would be the ways in which the donations have changed the quality of programs or work overall. Ultimately, this is the reason for your organization to exist.
Organizations may stop at measuring outcomes because they lack a clear definition of outcomes and impact or don’t have a shared understanding of how each step in the process informs—and strengthens—the ability to measure impact.
So how do we move away from measuring only outcomes to impact? Let’s explore the causal chain.
Getting comfortable with the causal chain
The key to measuring impact in a meaningful way is being clear about the causal chain driving an activity. A causal model maps how an organization gets from inputs to impact and the connections between each step. This is also known as a Theory of Change. In our example of creating a new donation platform for your organization, consider the following steps in the causal chain:
What expertise, time, and money will I need to complete this project?
What are the tasks that will need to take place in order to build the platform?
What will the final platform be able to do and how will people access it?
How much will we increase donations as a result of our new platform?
How will our work improve in quality & effectiveness as a result of this cash infusion?
Because impact can be more qualitative than quantitative in nature, it can make people uncomfortable to draw the causal conclusions needed to measure it. In our simple example of building a platform to increase donations, it could cause discomfort within an organization, particularly those who deal frequently in quantitative outcomes to make the casual leap from outcomes (increased donations) to the impact of that new platform (specific results from higher quality programming). By developing a clear and detailed causal model, it will make the process of assessing impact easier and more valuable.
As you move further to the right along the causal chain, the more difficult measurement becomes and the stronger your case is for making a causal relationship between inputs and impacts. As you move further toward understanding your impact, keep in mind that each link in the chain is vital to understand and achieve. If you break any link in the chain, you will lose the ability to truly assess the impact of your work and inputs.
The benefits of planning to assess impact
Building a causal model for your organization’s work—particularly when considering how communications efforts fit into your Theory of Change—may require some time investment. However, engaging in this planning can also result in a significant understanding of your work and how to communicate to your key stakeholders that your organization is relevant and thriving.
The primary benefits of using a causal chain to measure impact include:
- It helps you determine, at the outset, if your investment is worth the inputs you plan to put into it. If any of the links in your chain are weak or may not yield a clear impact, then you may consider what other options will get you to the impact you are looking for. It allows you to see the weak places in your work and improve them before you begin.
- You know from the outset what types of tools, such as surveys or quality models, you can use to assess the final impact instead of waiting for the final stages or outputs of the project to determine what to measure and how.
- It strengthens your organization’s ability to tell your story to potential funders, partners, and stakeholders who are vital to your organization’s mission. It justifies your reason for existing and helps your organization grow.
- You can track where your organization can improve next time it embarks upon a project of any kind, whether that is building a new platform or creating a program that furthers the mission of your organization’s work.