What does Impact mean?

Imagine a company who is giving away a new product free of charge at a train station or in the street. No one asked you what you wanted, in fact you don’t even know if you’ll like it or need it. But everyone is crowding around to get theirs. So you wade in, triumphantly grabbing yours, maybe even two (hey, they’re free right?!). This company might then write a report to its investors and say, “Success! We handed out 50,000 products, to 50,000 people. And because we estimate each person has a family of 3, our product has benefited 150,000 lives. We need more money, to expand”.

This is essentially how international development impact is reported at the moment.

I recently received an email from someone who said “We want charities where we feel the bulk of the money goes to the things we want doing. I understand where they were going with that comment, but it still irritated me to no end. Terms such as “Impact”, “bang for buck” are occurring ever more frequently in the wider public domain. There has been a huge increase of Social Impact companies, Social Enterprises, and Community Interest Companies all pursuing, among other things, the goal of achieving “impact”. But what is Impact?

Impact /impakt/ noun: The action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another; also A marked effect or influence

“Impact” is widely accepted as the betterment of people’s lives that a given [charity / aid agency / social enterprise / impact bonds / micro-finance / cash transfer…etc.] delete as applicable, is working towards.

Whether it is the total number of people helped, or how much money goes directly to the beneficiary, or even the change that has been achieved; “impact” has many different meanings for different people.
For some impact is the largest possible number of people helped in a specific activity. E.g. “…our work led to 8.4 million life-saving interventions, including immunisations and treatment for malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea, for children under five in 36 countries”.

For others it is that their donation has not been diluted by the time it reaches the beneficiary “we take money from donors and give it to the poor. We can do this because modern payments technology has drastically cut the costs of sending money directly to the extreme poor”.

While for others it as an actual change e.g. “a reduction in maternal mortality by 10%”.
The way I see it two issues exist. The first is what we mean by “impact”. In the development sector impact is broadly spoken about in two categories; output and outcome. And even here, in my opinion, these terms are often misused. When projects are developed NGOs are often asked what the outcome of a project might be and end up writing an output. So what is the difference? The dictionary definitions are:

Output: “The amount of something produced by a person, machine, or industry”

Outcome: “Something that follows as a result or consequence”

In aid terms this translates into:

Output: We delivered 40,000 mosquito nets to 25,000 families in 15 districts of 4 regions Aidlan. Assuming an average family size of 5, this translates into 125,000 beneficiaries.

Outcome: Malaria has been eliminated from village [x] and mortality as a result of malaria has been reduced by 20% over the last 5 years.

To put it simply the first is more transactional and assumes change, whilst the second is actual evidence of change. Unfortunately the communication tends to focus on the former, the quantity rather than quality. It has bigger numbers people can “relate” to it, it feels like there is progress. Perhaps fundamentally however, its the easier of the two sets of data to collect and communicate.

For the general public, “impact” is often equated with ‘how my donation is spent’. Which leads me to the second issue; that of impact defined as per our own perceptions (particularly if you are from what is considered a ‘developed” country, the “west” or the global “north”). When we weigh up the impact of one organisation over another, we are applying our standards of what we think should have been achieved. I question whether we are either objective enough or in fact even sufficiently knowledgeable to define impact. In many cases, consciously and unconsciously, we are patronising in our belief that we know better. This is not a criticism, it just is. It peppers the history of aid interventions and whilst the sector learns and adapts (thankfully, albeit slowly) there is still a whiff of “we know better”.

Impact shouldn’t be defined by our expectations, what WE think or believe to be the right change, or what WE think is worth our money. These are factors that can help us make a decision. Rather, Impact should be considered in terms of what the end users think and feel about the outcome[s] achieved, and should be reported in terms of the real change that communities experience as a result.

Before you put conditions on how you donate money or your skills next time consider, is this about what you want or about what the people you are looking to help want?

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