Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Shared Impact

It seems to me that Newton’s First Law of Motion applies to people as well. The principle is that a body remains at rest or in motion until acted on by some external force. For us as individuals, this means that we keep doing what we are doing (or not doing) until something makes us change.

Trouble is, real life is not a science laboratory where we can isolate the effect of a single ‘intervention’ (excuse the jargon). In life, we’re subject to a host of external influences all the time – some good, some bad. So if you’re a Third Sector organisation working to improve people’s health and well-being for example, it can be hard to distinguish the effect of what you’re doing from everything else that’s going on in their lives. 

This is an important issue in evaluation, the technical term being ‘attribution’. Even if you can measure the change that someone has achieved – improved health and well-being let’s say – and you know that you’ve helped them achieve that change, how much of that outcome is due to you rather than other influences? Even if yours is the only agency working with them (which is often not the case anyway), has a contribution also been made by medical treatment, by their friends or family, perhaps even by national health publicity that they’ve seen?

Social Return on Investment handles this by estimating what percentage of change is due to the intervention being evaluated. It’s not precise of course, but there are ways of making it quite robust, and a 2011 publication by New Economics Foundation, Small Slices of a Bigger Pie, goes into detail on this. But even this needs caution where change occurs in stages. Suppose for example that as a result of your work, someone is motivated to attend health screening which diagnoses a condition that is then treated successfully. Clearly the treatment produced that health improvement, but it would not have happened without your intervention, so how much of the outcome can you claim credit for?

I’d make two points. The first is the need to fully understand the outcomes achieved, by developing a Theory of Change (see my earlier blog here). What exactly has changed for the individual, and how has that happened?

Second, just how important is measuring your unique contribution anyway? Surely it’s the overall outcome that you’ve helped to achieve that matters most. Yes, I appreciate the practical issues in terms of demonstrating value to funders, but I believe this is a short-term view. Achieving real and lasting change needs collaboration, not competition. Measuring shared impact, and understanding how this is achieved by different organisations working together, is the way to create better outcomes for everyone.

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