We talk a lot about how important it is to measure outcomes and sometimes impact – and to share these results widely. But when you look closely at what organisations are really putting up on their websites, it is often just numbers or percentages. Numbers are great. Numbers are important. Numbers don’t answer the ‘so what’ question that tells us whether the work that generated those numbers actually does make a difference and deliver impact.
Think about it: your work reaches 50 communities with a total population of 20,000. That’s great. That’s called reach. you have reached 20,000 people with your intervention. So what? Did other organisations also work with those communities? Did they do work similar to yours? Even if no one but you worked with your communities, how do you know that all 20,000 people will demonstrate the behaviour change that you want to see? Even if you’re doing a large scale public health programme that delivers immunisation for example. You reach all 20,000 people, but do you immunize all 20,000 people (including older adults and some very young children)? And what happens post-immunisation? What does the follow up consultation process tell you about how well the immunisation programme has gone. Have there been any adoption issues? Has anyone displayed adverse reactions, etc? Where does this fit in your story of impact?
So numbers are important but not the whole story. I get why numbers are given the priority on lovely graphics and infograms on websites – they are easier to articulate. But actually they mislead readers and organisations into thinking that simply reporting on how many people, products, places or widgets have been delivered or reached is the whole story. It isn’t and no one should think so.
There is an argument that we can only reasonably measure outputs (numbers) with any degree of certainty and that we should work on being as good at measuring strategic outputs as we can be. That argument is reasonable, but it misses the point of why we do what we do. We want to deliver change – to improve the world and make it a better place. And counting numbers is only the start of that process – not the end.
Look at your website and the impact messages that you’re publishing. Are they actually about your impact, or are they really just the outputs of your activities? What do you think you need to do to be better at reporting impact?