Being able to measure and demonstrate “impact” has become a key part of modern philanthropy.
In one sense it is hard to argue with this ambition. Surely we all want to know whether the work we are doing or the donations we are making are actually having an effect on the issues we are trying to address, so that we can be confident we aren’t simply wasting our resources?
However, in recent times the notion of impact measurement has become more controversial. Critics arguing that in practice it has become another tool for imposing the views and priorities of donors or funders, and that it merely entrenches existing asymmetric power dynamics within philanthropy.
Furthermore, it is argued, current measures are too often aimed at the level of individual organisations rather than overall systems. By demanding that we can always draw a direct line between interventions and outcomes, we reinforce a mistaken notion that complex social and environmental problems can be solved by individual philanthropists or funders. In reality, however, genuine social change is almost always the result of the interaction and collaboration between multiple different actors, whose individual contribution may be difficult to quantify.
The focus on impact measurement can also bring particular challenges when it comes to advocacy and campaigning for social change, rather than the provision of services, since the link between intervention and outcome is likely to be more diffuse and stretched over a longer time period in these cases. The danger is that if donors and funders are inflexible in their demands for impact metrics, they will either end up imposing unsuitable measures on campaigning and advocacy activities, or will simply stick to funding more easily-measurable activities and outcomes in their desire to prove impact.
The point here is not to conclude that “measuring impact is bad”. Some ability to assess the effectiveness of giving is clearly a good thing. However, we need to be alive to the unintended consequences of the choices we make about what to measure. We should also heed Goodhart’s Law, that:
“When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure”
If we are to capture the full value of philanthropy and civil society, we need to make sure that the measures we have are the right ones. We may also need to accept that there are some things that can never be fully measured, but still have enormous value.