Rich James is director of Jolly Good Communications, a social enterprise providing a full range of communications and public relations services to charities, social enterprises and other not-for-profits. They also work with start-ups and SMEs, helping them to operate in a socially, environmentally and ethically conscious way.

Whether as a fundraiser, project coordinator or director, if you work for a charity a big part of your role is about being accountable. And this accountability ultimately comes down to one thing: impact. Now, of course, different charities will report on different aspects of impact, but fundamentally the challenge remains the same. How do you capture your impact, and why is it important?

What do we mean by impact?

As mentioned before, every charity will have different criteria by which they measure their impact. What number of organisations have you worked in partnership with? How many people have you trained or supported? How many capital projects have been delivered? How many vulnerable people will benefit? And arguably more importantly, how has it benefitted them? What changes have we seen?

This brings us to the two different types of impact: qualitative (outcomes) and quantitative (outputs). The latter deals with facts and statistics. How many people did you reach? How many resources did you provide? The former, more anecdotal approach refers to all the benefits, positives, changes and impact that are a bit harder to put a number on. It could be a quote from a beneficiary, a photo, video or case study capturing the positive effect of a project for one person in particular.

Neither qualitative or quantitative impact alone can give the full picture, so it’s important for any charity to report on both at the same time. There’s no point celebrating big numbers if you can’t tell the story of the people who make up those numbers. Likewise, one person’s story can be extremely powerful, but if there’s no idea of scale then fundraising, for instance, can be more of a challenge. With that in mind, the question becomes as much about what impact to report on, as to how to go about capturing and recording it.

One key aspect of recording impact is also being able to do so over time. Arguably, all charity projects and activities should aim to create a genuine legacy of change. However, where it gets difficult is tracking the knock-on benefit of any charitable work. How can you track the difference you have made over time? It may seem like a fairly simple question with an apparently simple answer, but the truth is while charities are required report to funders, supporters and the Charity Commission, your beneficiaries or even partner organisations do not necessarily need to do this.

Accuracy equals integrity

You may ask why capturing our impact accurately is so important. First, in not recording ongoing and cumulative impact, there is the danger organisations are doing themselves a disservice. If sustainability is core to your activities, you should also be reporting on longer-term impact as fully as if they were a new initiative. Once again, it all comes down to accountability.

Then there’s the fundraising argument. Due to the high level of competition for funding, charities are often chosen on the projected impact of their proposed activities, and it’s here that accuracy is key. If projections are vastly higher and greater than you are able to deliver it may work to your detriment for future funding efforts. Too low or limited, and you might not get the funding in the first place at all. Not only that, but major discrepancies between projected and actual impact can erode trust in your organisation. At a time when both leading charities and the sector as a whole is suffering from record low levels of public trust, integrity is the most powerful tool we have to rebuild that confidence.

Furthermore, many organisations will have a wide range of stakeholders: beneficiaries, families of those benefitting, partners, volunteers, trustees and donors. Each comes with different perspectives, priorities, aims and goals – what they expect or hope to see from each project. Because of this, correct tracking and recording of impact are imperative in order to enable charities to effectively and accurately report back to each of their stakeholders with the information they care about most.

It’s for all of these reasons that impact tracking, recording and reporting should be a priority for charities, ensuring figures are always as up to date and accurate as possible and striving never to miss out on those powerful anecdotal stories and accounts of how your organisation is making a difference in people’s lives.