Over the last decade charities have seen a dramatic increase in competition for funding and supporters. There are more charities, trying to meet rapidly rising demand for their work, chasing broadly the same amount of money.
How can you stand out from the crowd; why should people and organisations support you rather than another cause or charity?
Part of the answer to that question is a marketing challenge. However, it won't matter how spectacular your charity's communication is, if the content is weak then upping your presentation game won't make a lasting difference. You need to be able to tell a strong story about the difference your charity makes.
Some charities fall back on telling a strong story of need; picture the crying/starving/disabled child, for example. But that approach is seen by many as ethically questionable because it often promotes a negative image of dependent beneficiaries. Moreover, I would argue it is also starting to wear thin and convinces fewer and fewer people that your charity should secure their support (if everyone is showing similar heartbreaking images what makes you different?).
Other charities rely on telling prospective supporters what they do and for how many beneficiaries. While that's a start, it makes the bold leap of faith that just because you tell people you are a charity, they will automatically assume that what you do is good, worthwhile and effective.
The benefits of impact assessment
However, public trust and confidence in charities has taken a big hit in the last few years, with scandal after scandal hitting the headlines. It's true that people still trust smaller local charities more than the big players but there are signs that is also being eroded (I have clients who have been trolled on social media just because they state they are a charity). Current and potential supporters are increasingly asking "...and so what?"; i.e. is what you provide for your beneficiaries making any difference, are their lives better as a result, is it helping make the world a better place? These are questions many institutional funders have been asking quite some time (and more of them are doing so). Therefore, in my view, a big step charities can take to set themselves apart is to collect evidence to enable them to answer this question.
And there will be other advantages to having tangible evidence that what you do works:
- It will help motivate your staff and volunteers (as well as help recruit more).
- It will help you manage the performance of your services by identifying what works well and what needs to improve.
- It will give you a stronger voice to influence policy makers because you'll know with confidence what works (and you'll be able to show them evidence).
I hear you asking won't this all cost money and use valuable time and resources?
Impact assessment need not be a burden
Yes it will, but it needn't be a burden. You can (and should) start with light touch, simple approaches and develop them as you gain confidence and understanding. Short questionnaires, with responses recorded in simple spreadsheets by volunteers can be a great place to start. As can using data that is already collected by others (e.g. schools or local authorities), if they will share it with you. Systematically recording testimonials from beneficiaries and stakeholders and developing case studies (i.e. beneficiary stories) is also a good way to gather really powerful evidence.
The trick is to know what you are aiming to achieve and work out the best (and simplest) way to gather evidence of the outcomes you are seeking. A simple theory of change can provide a useful framework for working out what information you need (and can afford to collect). I will expand further on this in a future blog post or perhaps even a resources page on our website.
For now, I encourage you to think seriously about how you can evidence the impact of your charity's work (not just how much of it you do) and to try some new things. If you need help to develop your thinking and put it into practice we'd be delighted to talk to you about what we can offer. Just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange free initial telephone discussion.