The Language of Measurement

Cornish and Grey | 6 May 2014

Businesses use market research to continually innovate when it comes to their products and services, by doing this they know what their customers want and are able to deliver. By constantly adapting to their customers needs they are able to keep their products and services popular and relevant.

So, should charities be any different?

Charities have a different relationship with their service users.  Existing, as they do, to improve people’s lives, they have not typically seen the need – or felt able to justify the resources – for proper measurement. Yet in recent years, charities have increasingly been delivering public services and many now see measurement as vital in proving the effectiveness of their programmes to donors and other stakeholders.  

However, demands from funders have often led to the charity sector seeing measurement as an essential marketing tool rather than as a way of learning about their organisation. Small to medium size charities rarely use research to reinvent themselves, change their way of implementation or learn from their mistakes. 

The Pilotlight engagement is all about supporting charities with strategic planning.  However, senior business people (we call the ones we work with ‘Pilotlighters’) and charities often don’t see social impact measurement as an essential part of that planning process. So, why is that?

The problem is one of language

Pilotlighters often think social impact measurement is something specific to the third sector and beyond their skills set.   Charities come to us thinking that market research has no relevance to them and their stakeholders since they are not in the business of ‘selling’.  

The reality is that social impact measurement, like market research, is a core part of the strategic planning process.  By measuring their impact, small and medium charities can use this ‘research’ to improve their services, target the people they are there to help, use their resources more efficiently, and develop strong partnerships. Ultimately they can demonstrate that they value and care about the difference they make to people’s lives. 

So, how do we overcome misconceptions about measurement?

One of the ways we do this at Pilotlight is by helping business people and charities learn each other’s language (we use a ‘Service User Journey’ - a cross between ‘a theory of change’ and ‘a business mapping tool’).  A business process map focuses on the organisation’s activities (‘outputs’) and on making the organisation more efficient.  A Theory of Change focuses on the changes the organisation is trying to achieve (‘outcomes’) and on making the organisation more effective.  By exploring the relationship between activities and outcomes, the teams are able to identify ways of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the charity and understand the role that measurement plays in this.  

Over the last year, there has been growing recognition of the importance of impact measurement that focuses on organisational learning. Charities and social enterprises adopting this approach are starting to see a range of benefits much broader than just satisfying existing funders.  By understanding that social impact measurement can be a valuable way of learning about their organisation it becomes clear that the business sector in general – and Pilotlighters in particular – have much to contribute.

By Anna Grey, Evaluation Manager, Pilotlight