Last week we hosted our third Impact Meetup at Helsinki Think Company, open for all impact-minded individuals. This time, the topic was modelling your impact. Impact measurement and communicating your impact seems to be a theme that comes up in just about any conversation around anything to do with impact. So why modelling your impact as a topic for a meetup, instead of impact measurement directly? What is impact modelling exactly, anyway? And what is the problem with impact measuring as it is currently done?
Impact measurement as product development
“Don’t just prove your impact, improve it”, as aptly stated by Acumen. Every impact enterprise aims to have impact via their product or service. Therefore, measuring impact is in fact measuring the quality of your products and services – nothing more, nothing less than product development. Doesn’t sound very media sexy, does it? It is, however, a crucial part of your everyday operations. And who is impact measurement done for? Nowadays the unfortunate focus seems to be on after-the-fact reporting requirements for investors and funders, which leads to resource-consuming reports that end up gathering dust somewhere. Worst of all, most of these reports end up never actually being used for anything. In practice, data is only as useful as the decisions and especially action it leads to.
Theory of change
The theory of change is a commonly used term, at times contrasted with and at times equaled to the logic model, a.k.a the impact model. The main point is to define your long-term goal and then map backwards from there, to identify what needs to happen in order for you to get to your goal.
What is the change you want to see in the world?
Impact modelling via the theory of change is about mapping out what is the change you want to see in the world and how you intend to get there.
Shedding light on your assumptions and verifying them
We’ve taken a liking to and adapted Acumen’s version of the theory of change, as shown above. An important aspect is the assumptions between each phase: What needs to happen between each phase in order for the next one to realize? What could go wrong? Mapping the assumptions out in the beginning sheds light on aspects of the model that need to be tested. Once the model is filled out, the assumptions need to be prioritized in order of importance: what are your most crucial assumptions? I.e. if you are wrong about these, the whole model falls apart and you end up having no impact. These assumptions need to be verified one by one, in order of priority. This is where actual impact measurement comes in.
Customers or beneficiaries as the primary source of data
The theory of change stresses the importance of the customer or beneficiary in the source for data once starting to verify the model: you cannot possibly find all necessary data in-house i.e. within your impact enterprise, but the majority of data collection must be done from your customers or beneficiaries: Are they using your product or service in the way you thought they would? What do they think about it? How has it changed their lives? These learnings should then be used to refine your theory of change and improve on the impact you are having.
If the impact modelling step is skipped and an organization delves directly into measuring impact, the most critical factor is forgotten: Why are we actually doing what we do? What do we actually want to achieve? This should be “the true north” guiding all of your actions, no matter how big or small.
Impact modelling as tools for a learning organization
Modelling your impact is by far not easy, simple, nor a right-or-wrong-answer question, as was discussed in the Impact Meetup. Phases of the theory of change, like impact and outcome are also hard to distinguish from one another. However, it is namely a tool for discussion that should be had, involving as many stakeholders as possible, as early on in the process as possible. Canvases are useful also because they force an idea and its main components into one page, which is easier to communicate than pages and pages of text. Theory of change models should not aim for perfection, which is impossible, but the point is to be a learning organization and iterate on them. Once you collect new data from your customers or beneficiaries, use that data to improve your operations and therefore improve your impact. One Impact Meetup attendee even got excited about the theory of change canvas as a way to model their own personal impact!
A big thank you to all meetup participants for a lively discussion! We didn’t quite finish saving the world, but hopefully managed to generate some food for thought on the way there.
Looking forward to continuing the discussion, and most of all, action!
P.S. Want to find out more?
- Check out our slides from the Impact Meetup
- Check out more about Acumen’s Lean Data
- Study free online courses on the topics: