The leaders of mission-driven organizations — whether nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid B-Corps, now live and operate in a world where the need for an impact measurement convention is undisputed.
Fundamentally, impact measurement is about helping organizations manage performance, learn, improve outcomes, and hold themselves accountable to those they serve.
The value that is generated through the ability to produce and track outcomes and then share those outcomes frequently and consistently with stakeholders is clear.
Leaders understand that stakeholders and potential donors not only want to understand if they are making a difference but also what difference they are making.
Why, then, are so many leaders and impact practitioners failing to go beyond the number of beneficiaries or consumers “reached” as a measure of impact?
Cringe-worthy headlines of well-intentioned social-good organizations proudly announcing to the world that they “have reached over X number of people” are ubiquitous.
Yet, what does that even mean? What happens once we “reach” them?
Certainly, after all this time, we have come farther along in the practice of impact management — or even responsible reporting — than to simply stop at people reached.
Measuring Impact: Beyond “People Reached”
Most leaders of mission-driven organizations are not measurement experts. Understanding which outcomes and outputs to track can be complicated.
Among other challenges, without a solid theory of change or available, reliable data, many leaders have little choice but to track and measure the tangible, immediate practices, products, and services that result from activities they undertake (otherwise known as outputs).
There is nothing wrong with this practice. It is a worthy indicator and certainly one of the most important links in the impact value chain.
Identifying, for example, the number of women who attended a seminar on domestic violence can be valuable information if the organization wants to understand the scale of its work over time.
That said, on its own, this statistic says nothing about whether the seminar empowered the women to leave or report abusive situations (i.e., change their situation).
The number of people attended is not an acceptable proxy for impact because it doesn’t explain how these women’s lives changed as a result.
Furthermore, it may not even be an acceptable measure of organizational growth or effectiveness because it does not suggest whether the number of people is impressive or unimpressive in the field or geography. It does not indicate whether more people or fewer people were reached than through previous efforts by the same organization.“People reached” as a standalone impact indicator is insufficient at best, meaningless at worst. Click To Tweet
Finding Fault With the Default Output Indicator
In the absence of more meaningful or more attainable metrics, tracking people reached is, at least, a start.
Stakeholders settle for it because it offers comparability.
Mission-driven leaders and boards settle for it because it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to track and, in some cases, because stakeholders are not demanding more — yet.
But change is coming.
With the new and progressive effective altruism movement (championed by ethicist Peter Singer), which calls for a broad, evidence-based approach in determining the most effective ways to benefit others, it’s only a matter of time before funders, stakeholders, and constituencies served by these organizations will demand more than the lowest common denominator of impact.
New Impact Indicators
Even if leaders want to go beyond the metric of “people reached” alone, they may lack the resources, support, or capacity to do so.
One of the most basic and conspicuous things missing from tracking only the number of people reached in any defined period of time is a frame of reference:
How does the organization define reaching? What are their reach goals?
How does reaching people lead to meaningful change in the short and long term? And have they been reached in a way that is meaningful to them?
Leaders should challenge themselves to at least provide some of this context when or if “people reached” is the only data point they have.
Perhaps they can elaborate on how this output indicator will eventually lead to meaningful change for those reached.
They might consider sharing the percentage increase in the number of people reached year over year or month over month, and how that has led or can lead to the achievement of additional milestones.
Or, they can develop a compelling case for critical investments in capacity building or other more meaningful impact indicators like an impact study or randomized control trial.
We can do better, can’t we? Would the people whose lives have changed because of your work stop at “Thank God I was reached.”? That doesn’t tell the complete and compelling story for them or for you.
Tell me about your journey to measure the real change of your work — even if you, too, are struggling to get beyond simply measuring people reached.