CDE project 19 section 5: things to think about
- Written by
- The Commission on the Donor Experience
- April 27, 2017
Things to think about
There are many ways of showing impact and it is important to be clear about
In its simplest sense, communicating impact is telling donors what their donation achieved and giving an idea of progress towards the end result.
There are many ways of measuring impact, which may be appropriate for different circumstances. They could range from a human example of how an organisation helped one person change their life to surveys of beneficiaries, or from statistics. It is unlikely that there will ever be a single right answer. See CDE project 6 on the use and misuse of emotion.
A cross-sector guide to the principles of impact reporting provides a useful guide to the key elements that impact measurement, which should include:
- Clear purpose
- Defined aims
- Coherent activities
- Demonstrated results
- Lessons learned
In communications terms, these principles tend to lead to simple rules: say what you want to achieve, say what you did, say what the results were, give some evidence of the results and be open about any lessons. On top of this, any communications surely should also be interesting, human, easy to grasp and informative.
Both outputs and outcomes can help tell those stories, although as Tris Lumley of NPC sensibly argues, numbers should accompany human examples and human examples should accompany numbers.
Social return on investment models can provide a way of attaching monetary values or other metrics of the outcomes of charity work. That sort of analysis can be hugely beneficial for institutional or corporate funders who need comparable statistics to report on and evaluate funding programmes. They can also be a powerful tool for organisations evaluating their own work of seeking new funding streams. Our research suggested that people liked the idea of hard statistical information showing what a charity delivers and what it achieves. However, they said they were unlikely to search for that information, suggesting that they may find a storytelling approach more accessible.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate the technical merits of various impact reporting methodologies; instead, it focuses on general principles of how people claim they would like to hear about how their donations made a difference.
The key question to answer is what information would be proportionate—and useful—for different groups. While a full-scale social return on investment analysis may be useful, or indeed essential for large institutional or corporate funders to evaluate grantmaking and their overall effectiveness, for a general public audience it may be more appropriate to tell stories and give examples.
From a practical point of view, it appears more useful—in the short run at least—to have a conversation with donors about the difference a charity makes, rather than insisting on a particular methodology.
Talking about impact can have negative consequences so testing is important
Experimental studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of talking to donors about charities, suggesting that explaining impact can have a neutral or a negative effect on future donations.
Instinctively, we know that it is right to say ‘thank you’ for a gift, and we know it is polite to say what you did with that gift—this is something engrained in all of us from an early age. We also instinctively know that people like being thanked and they like some human feedback.
So much is simple, but there are lessons beyond this basic point. Experimental studies carried out in the US looked at donors who were shown some independent verification of a charity’s work, such as a statement that it was scientifically verified or that it rated highly on a site such as Charity Navigator. The presence of the ratings made little or no difference to donations, although in one study large donors gave more, but smaller donors giving less offset that. A third study resulted in falling donations overall if people were shown Charity Navigator ratings.  Of course, that may be more a factor to do with the ratings than talking about impact and achievements, but it does suggest that simply talking about an overall charity ‘score’ or rating will not be effective.
The differences between what donors say about impact and how they act does not diminish the need to communicate impact
There are practical problems with claimed behaviour, laboratory-style experimentation and anecdotal stories about ‘best practice’ as ways to tell us how best to act.
Polling, such as that carried out for this paper, and the other quantitative studies mentioned here, tell us what people say they think and feel. They attempt to predict how people behave, by asking them in advance, but they do not predict what people will actually do when faced with any given situation; in other words, ‘actual’ behaviour. Social desirability can have an impact on claimed behaviour, albeit subconsciously.
There are all sorts of examples of this: ‘shy’ voters in elections and the fact that people complain about fundraising yet still give all suggest we need to treat stated preferences with caution. Some argue that it is false—dangerous even—to look at survey evidence, draw conclusions and act on them.
We need to be very clear about what the polling tells us and what it does not.
Repeated market research shows that donors say they are interested in finding out about impact and achievements of charities. They also rank it highly when given a list of things they might be told by charities to which they donate. So we know that people claim to be interested in this subject when asked.
We know that people say they like to be thanked after making a donation and receive some feedback. Polling by GfK NOP, commissioned by CAF in 2015,  found that evidence about how a charity has an impact was most likely to be valued by people, with 68% of respondents agreeing this was important. Regular updates on the charity's work were seen as important by 57%. Identifying how an individual donation had been spent was seen as important by 54%. A standard ‘thank you’ was regarded as important by 48% and a personalised ‘thank you’ was seen as important by 39%.
This does not tell us whether people would give more or less if they actually got the ‘thank you’ or the feedback. However, it does tell us that to some extent they care about the issue—and it produces a compelling signal that it would seem unwise to ignore.
It would be wrong to ignore these signals in a world where people are demanding more transparency and more accountability from all institutions. In a ‘post-fact’ world, where people may be motivated by emotion and belief rather than by cold evidence, it would seem sensible to start providing people with reasons to believe in our work, rather than kept them waiting. Perhaps it is best to look at feedback on achievements as a hygiene factor, an investment in long-term relationships that might not yield donations today but might earn charities their continued right to speak—and right to ask—in the long term.
Measuring and communicating impact is about more than soliciting donations
We need to be clear about our aims here. One is to ensure people continue to give: to encourage the spirit of generosity that makes Britain one of the most charitable countries in the world. So building trusting relationships that last is extremely important. Giving money is a very important part of that relationship, as are volunteering, advocacy and building support for a cause, among others.
That is not the only purpose of charity communications, however. Charity comms build trust and relationships, they educate people about the cause, they provide information and advice, and they have a direct impact on the cause itself.
The same goes for setting objectives, measuring outputs, outcomes and learning lessons.
The benefits and techniques of impact measurement go far beyond the remit of this paper. It seems only sensible for an organisation to set out what it aims to achieve, work out if it is actually doing that, and learn from its successes and failures. Measuring and describing what a charity does, and the effect of its activities on its beneficiaries, can improve services, lead to new services, help build bonds with stakeholders, create long-term trust and produce donations in the short term.