I was invited to speak about outcomes at the monthly grassroots lunch convened by the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership and Community Development. It was a lively conversation with a small group of nonprofit leaders in NY’s Capital Region, all of whom are doing important work in the community. During introductions, I asked participants to talk about the impact of their organizations. And they started talking about what they did. They were doing many things to help their communities, but what they said didn’t describe their impact.
There are (at least) two answers to the question I posed in the post title. First, how you choose to define your impact affects what you do and how effective you are. The Cambridge English dictionary defines impact as “a powerful effect that something, especially something new, has on a situation or person.”
In the mission-driven context, I think of impact as the change you want to make in the world. If you solve the problem you set out to solve, what would the world look like? Defining impact helps you make decisions about what you do and can help you find the resources to do it. It’s not easy, and it requires some research to verify your assumptions and scaling your effort to the resources you have (or can develop).
The second answer is perhaps more obvious: how effective are you in the change you want to make? Focusing on impact will allow you to ask new questions like: Are we making progress toward our impact? How do we know?
At the grassroots lunch, we spent some time talking about what we measure and why. One participant reflected on the pressure on non-profits to increase the number of people they serve and report it as a measure of success. One participant noted the irony of that, “Aren’t we just measuring more need?” And yes, that’s exactly what they are doing. There isn’t anything wrong with measuring that, but it isn’t measuring impact.
Measuring progress toward your impact or evaluating your work is brave and essential. You might learn that you aren’t making the change you want to have on the world. And that’s when you can really start making a difference.
If you want help making a bigger difference in your work, let me know.