Why we should measure charity impact more widely

When it comes to doing good in the world charities aren’t the only show in town. Social movements such as gender equality and black lives matter, and ethical & socially responsible businesses such as Patagonia and Warby Parker demonstrate that positive impact can be achieved without being a nonprofit organisation. So, where does this leaves charities? If social impact can be achieved by organisations that are financially self-sustaining and without the need for an organisation at all, then it leaves charities stuck in the ‘squeezed middle’ between the two, justifying their place in the for-good landscape.

In pushing out of that middle, charities need to be able to demonstrate their impact, to be accountable to funders for how they spend money, to the public (and perhaps the press although not justifiably so) to ward off questions about the need for their existence, and also for themselves to know that they are doing a good job and making a difference. It’s this accountability that makes charities different to social movements and for-profit businesses. Not just accountability for spending money, but accountable for achieving impact. But impact is a difficult thing to define and even more difficult to measure, especially across the wide range of different charities that make up the charity sector.

There is an argument for charities to measure impact against their mission. This approach suggests each charity be clear about it’s mission and measure it’s impact accordingly without the need for defining measures that work consistently for all charities or adhering to externally applied regulations. If a charity’s mission is, for example, to prevent a particular species from extinction then it’s impact in achieving that mission can be considered simply by asking if that species is nearer or farther away from extinction following the charities work. A simple, single measure that applies whatever the charity. But simple, single measures only ever provide a small part of the picture. To go down the route of measuring impact narrowly against each charity’s mission is to fall into the trap of businesses measuring their performance by their bottom line. It provides a limited understanding, which risks being used to make the wrong decisions.

But there is another approach to consider. Rather than focus on the measurement of mission, charities could seek to demonstrate the wider benefit they bring to society. They could demonstrate the positive sentiment they create, the good vibes people get from supporting charities. And the benefits volunteering brings to people, not to mention the state in reducing social care needs and the commercial sector in giving people work experience. And sense of pride and achievement felt but those who work in and for charities to make a difference. And the security that people in need get from knowing that charities are there to help, even if they don’t need them right now. Charities do so much more good in the world than just in achieving their missions. This is their impact, and we should celebrate the widest possible definition of the impact charities have on the world we live in.