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Article posted on The Guardian by Sophie Hudson 31 August 2012
Telling donors and funders about impact is as important as measuring it
As an increasing number of charities start to get to grips with measuring their impact, the next hurdle many of them are facing is how they can best communicate it. Many seem to find that telling others about their impact in an effective yet clear way is almost as hard as measuring it in the first place. Tris Lumley, head of development at New Philanthropy Capital , says an increasing number of charities have started to talk about their impact in their annual reports.
“Charities are trying to be clearer about what it is they are trying to achieve,” he says. “People are talking more about outcomes than they were five years ago.” But he says that for many charities there is still “some way to go” with how they are communicating this, and that many struggle to do it well.
Claire Coulier, manager at the Social Impact Analysts Association, says that part of the problem could be that charities sometimes find it difficult not to exaggerate their individual impact on a problem when often there are so many organisations working towards the same eventual goal.
“But it’s really important that charities are transparent with this,” she says. “Make sure what you are saying is verifiable and there’s good reason for the cause and effect that you are claiming.”
Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms, agrees that it is important for charities to be honest when communicating their impact. “If everything in the garden is utterly rosy, it can come across as suspicious or bland”, she says. She says it does not matter if there are some imperfections. “It’s okay to say that something you tried didn’t work, if you can show how you learned from it as an organisation and what you’d do differently next time.”
Funders, the audience that is most often targeted by charities when communicating impact, agree that this is essential. Sarah Mistry, head of policy and learning at the Big Lottery Fund, says communicating impact is a very important part of its application process, and agrees that it is important for charities to be honest about how they have responded to any challenges.
“We are keen on organisations that show they are building and learning and communicate how things have changed over time,” she says. And she says it is important for charities to think carefully about the audience they are talking to each time they report their impact.
“It’s a question of knowing your audience and what you are trying to achieve,” she says. “Charities should think about whether they are communicating impact for accountability reasons or are telling potential funders how well they have done.” Mistry adds that the BLF likes creative approaches when charities communicate impact, particularly the use of feedback and case studies from service users to show what has been achieved. Others agree that case studies are an integral part of communicating impact successfully. Lumley, from NPC, says a good principle for charities to follow is “no stories without numbers and no numbers without stories”.
“I think just giving people a case study without telling them how representative it is can mean the story does not stick,” he says. “But then if you bombard people with numbers they are left with no sense of the people you are talking about. That’s a typical thing that we often see.” And he says charities should not be afraid to use media other than their annual report to communicate their impact.
“A donor is likely to look at your annual report so it’s important to capture as much of this as possible in there,” he says. “But some charities also use sites like Youtube to show their impact and others might use social networking. For example, a charity might tweet with a hashtag asking people what impact they have had on their lives and gather up the responses. There are lots of ways to play around with how you tell the story.”
One charity that has grappled successfully with impact communication is IntoUniversity, which supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attain a university place. Hugh Rayment-Pickard, director of development at the charity, says that for the past three or four years it has produced an annual impact report rather than an annual report. “We look at quantifiable indicators of our impact, get students to say what impact we have had on them, and external bodies also comment on us in the report,” he says. When the charity tries to quantify its impact, Rayment-Pickard says it is careful to focus on the exact parts of its beneficiaries’ lives it has influenced. “Often when charities make social return on investment calculations to communicate their impact they will claim that because this person they have helped is now doing a positive activity, it means they are therefore not doing this list of negative activities,” he says.
Rayment-Pickard says that because of this he feels a lot of impact calculations are over-speculative. “So when we make our SROI calculations we only look at the direct benefits the student has experienced from doing the degree,” he says. He says IntoUniversity has had a lot of positive feedback about its impact report, and that part of the reason is that it is accessible and engaging. “For any other charities thinking of producing something similar I would generally recommend making something someone could read in 15-20 minutes,” he says. “And there’s very little text in the report. We tend to use infographics to show our impact and then some text. We also include case studies.”
IntoUniversity also sends a small leaflet with their Christmas mailing to all stakeholders with a snapshot of impact information. Rayment-Pickard says these communications have been a key part of the charity’s success with fundraising and building longer-term partnerships, particularly with corporates.
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