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Six reasons donors shouldn't always care about impact

In our latest blog, Joe Saxton takes a look into some of the reasons why looking at impact may not be the best course of action when it comes to charities assessing their effectiveness and how donors give their money.


Joe Saxton


There is a lot of talk about how important impact is for a non-profit organisation. And of course, it is. However, the reality is that for many charities it’s impossible to know for certain what the impact of a course of action is. This isn’t just because impact is hard to measure: it can be impossible or not an organisation’s top priority.

Let me give six areas when an organisation can’t know or shouldn’t care about which course of action will have the most impact:

  1. Medical research takes years to come to fruition. The foundations for many of today’s successes in medical research were started 20 years ago, or longer. To develop a new drug or treatment may require a better understanding of basic cell biology or physiological mechanisms. Moreover, part of that process is a degree of redundancy – pursuing avenues that don’t go anywhere – with all the frustration and failure that entails. To ask scientists to be successful, to have impact, in every experiment or trial they undertake would be like asking a detective to only interview the guilty people. It’s just not possible. So there will always be processes in science where there is no impact. No results. And a donor’s money has gone into that, and there is no way around it. Some donations don’t have impact.


  1. Campaigning doesn’t always work. I wonder if anybody has ever tried to work out how many campaigns have actually worked. I would guess it’s about one in three at best. Some fail because they never had sufficient resource. Some were poorly planned. Some had a government of the day un-interested in the issue. Or, as in the last three years, an issue like Brexit has been all-consuming of parliamentary time and political energy. And there are a host of other reasons why campaigns fail but the reality is they do, and it’s an endemic occupational hazard of campaigning. The important point is that at the beginning of the process it’s very difficult to know which campaigns will succeed and fail. So a donor who wants to be sure their donations to a campaigning organisation have impact is bound to be disappointed. Indeed, I would argue that some campaigns should be fought even if they are hopeless because they are the right thing to do.


  1. When should success be measured? Many years ago I interviewed Roger Singleton at Barnardo’s and one very interesting question that he said they struggled with was when to decide if something had worked. He gave the example of a child adoption. Should an adoption be deemed successful after 6 months or a year if the relationship hadn’t broken down? Or perhaps it could only be deemed successful when adopted children themselves have children. In many areas, success needs to be measured over years or decades, not weeks or month. A donor to campaigns for LGBT rights in the early 1980s might have asked for their money back when the Thatcher government implemented clause 28. But nearly 40 years later their investment in campaigning has been returned with interest.


  1. Measuring what is in people’s heads is hard. A project I worked on a few years ago tried to understand what progress was made in helping homeless people. They used outcomes stars and a range of other measures. The bottom line was that measuring the progress on addictions, resilience, managing money, states of mental health and so on was very hard. This is compounded by the way that vulnerable people react to crisis or unexpected situations. The death of a family member or a friend can knock people sideways. In homelessness and a raft of other areas, measuring impact can only be described as a ‘work in progress’. Providing accommodation is easy and tangible but the real test is whether people can manage their own lives. And that is just the start – can they get the support to live happy fulfilled lives? Should that be our real measure of impact?


  1. Would Oxfam or Scope or RSPB have started if they had done an impact analysis? Imagine if the Quakers at that meeting in Oxford in 1942 that started Oxfam had decided that what they did had to have an impact. What they were proposing was a very daunting task: to get relief supplies to children in Greece under German occupation suffering from the Allied Blockade. Any grant-maker would have laughed at their application. They had no track record, no structures, no delivery mechanism – but they went ahead nonetheless. The Oxfam story is typical of so many charities: a few dedicated people don’t look at what is feasible, but what’s needed or what’s right. Demanding that a start-up charity has impact is like demanding a start-up company makes a profit. If you do, it will kill most stone dead.


  1. All roads don’t and shouldn’t lead to vaccines. In recent years, I have got into managing my own pensions funds. My task has a clear goal – to maximise the growth in my pension pot. If I did the equivalent thing for delivering impact, I would probably ignore all the areas of charity work I have discussed and would just donate to providing vaccinations or clean water in poorer countries. I could certainly save a lot more people that way. The Unicef shop tells me I can buy 20 measles vaccines for £13.50. That’s 67.5p for a life-saving vaccine. If I want to maximise the impact of my donation pot there is little that can beat that. But what a sad and shallow world it would be if all donors tried to maximise impact in that way.


My argument is not that measuring impact is a bad thing nor that donors shouldn’t care about impact. It is that not all areas of the work of charities are equally appropriate for impact measurement, and measuring impact has very different metrics and methodologies depending on the nature of the work that a charity does. In the end, I want donors to be driven by a passion for the cause first and foremost. To paraphrase the Einstein quote ‘Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts.’


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