EPISODE 6: Demonstrating outcomes
Track your impact, celebrate your successes, and connect your audience to service users by crafting an impact story.
Social impact organisations are fundamentally do-ers. They do activities, implement projects, coordinate events, mobilise communities, raise awareness, and serve the end users - and in the flurry of all this ‘doing’, it’s easy to forget about the real meaning behind it all.
It’s often easy to get fixated on outputs (for example, the number of people trained, the number of mosquito nets distributed, etc.), especially because outcomes are more abstract and harder to measure. How do you know your organisation is reducing social isolation or helping youth gain employability skills? Well, you need to ask your service users.
Why is it important to track your outcomes?
Internally, tracking outcomes is essential to know if you are on track to achieving your goals. By developing a better understanding of people’s experience with you, you can continually improve your offerings. It will make your organisation better at meeting the needs of the community and create a stronger partnership with your service users.
Externally, it’s essential to prove your outcomes to donors, partners, government, and other stakeholders who need to know just how effective your organisation is. Demonstrating that you can deliver results will attract partnerships and keep stakeholders rooting for you.
What’s the difference between an impact assessment and an impact story?
An impact assessment would require both quantitative and qualitative data and an in-depth assessment of the project. You will need to have a sizable representative sample of participants and would need to implement rigorous assessment research tools.
Impact stories, however, can be accessed by interviewing or surveying service users. These stories are often included as part of an impact assessment, and focus on individual experiences. If you read Episode 5, you’ll know that stories can be effective tools for creating empathy and a human connection between stakeholders. But it is important that you collect and tell them well, and we’re here to help you navigate this daunting path.
How to collect authentic stories
Social issues are often widespread, complex, and difficult to see (and understand) from our own, individual perspectives. Even if our neighbours are experiencing a social issue, we might not see it because there are various stigmas and shame surrounding so many of these experiences. Impact stories lower those barriers and allow stakeholders to connect with the service user at a personal level. To truly understand the scope and nature of the problem, we need a one-to-one connection with someone who is experiencing it.
However, telling that story is personal and can be painful, as well as carrying the risk of exposing a vulnerable person to public scrutiny. Therefore, we should be extremely careful and responsible when telling and sharing impact stories. Before collecting, writing, or distributing an impact story, we should ensure we have informed consent from the interviewee, who should also be able to review the impact story and given the chance to feedback on how their story is presented and shared.
It’s important to make the interviewee feel like an empowered storyteller. There are many ways to do this, so here are a few to help get you started:
10 tips to help you find the right impact story...
Identify service users who are interested in explaining their experience. Don’t pressure service users into giving their stories.
Create a relaxing and positive environment for the interview. Encourage your service users to be honest, rather than trying to tell you what you want to hear.
Avoid leading questions, such as, “How did we improve your life?” Instead, ask open-ended questions like, “Have you experienced any changes since joining the programme? Can you tell me about them?”,“How did you feel about Y?”.
Be aware of cultural differences, language barriers, or accessibility challenges and prepare for them in advance.
Choose an interviewer with the appropriate experience and skills. Also, it’s important to include people with insights from the demographic of study in the formulation of questions and interview instructions.
Think about whether or not translation is required, and ensure you have someone on the team who is willing and able to do that. Cross-check answers with several speakers to ensure the quote is accurate and all the nuances are taken into account.
Take notes and, if it’s appropriate, record the interview. Sometimes it’s better to record because it allows you to be fully ‘present’ in the interview.
Prepare questions but allow the conversation to flow naturally, even if it deviates from the interview guide. This can be an excellent way of discovering new information.
Always be prepared not to release the impact story. If the interviewee has second thoughts or is unhappy with the final version for any reason, delete it. Protecting your relationship with service users should always be your first priority.
Remember, as Jennifer Ruthe so aptly put it, “Telling someone else’s story is not your right. It is a privilege. So please, take the time to tell it well.”
You have the story. Now what?
From the interview, you have the content of your impact story. However, you still need to think about how you will convey the story and frame this individual’s experience. For the most part, you can let the content of the interview shape the structure of your impact story, but you should also be aware of the following points to make sure you have a rounded piece.
Let the interviewee shine: As we know, fostering empathy and understanding requires a human connection. Show the human side of the story by capturing personal details and letting the interviewee shine as an individual with many layers.
Make the story relatable: It’s often difficult to connect the audience to the interviewee’s story because it might seem very distant, or readers might feel the situation would never happen to them. Frame the story in terms of universals. No matter where we come from or who we are, we all have family, aspirations, and fears. You can also invite readers to imagine themselves in the interviewee’s shoes - how would we feel? What help would we want to have?
Give a sense of the larger social problem: Hint that this story is one of many and, while every account is unique, it’s not an isolated incident. If you have statistics to show the scope of the problem, include those.
Show how your organisation’s work addresses the problem: Be careful not to be overbearing or overshadow your interviewee’s story when you explain your organisation’s work. Pay attention to how you position your organisation’s involvement and avoid framing yourself as the saviour. If you want people to find out more, you can invite readers to reach out or visit your website, rather than dominating the story.
If you feel intimidated by the amount of work it requires to demonstrate your impact, you’re not alone. There is a good reason for this. Demonstrating impact feels daunting because it is a long, involved process that requires careful consideration at each step. However, it is important to remember that impact stories are an essential bridge between your service users and a wider audience. These stories are also a reminder for you and your organisation about what you’re trying to achieve, as well as documentation and celebration of the strides you’ve already made.
Whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed by the process of creating impact stories, we recommend reading stories from other organisations to get inspired. Reading about positive social change is also a sure-fire way to brighten your day! (Shameless plug alert: Jen’s asked me to share a series she’s recently written with the team at the African Paediatric Fellowship Programme in South Africa - a good place to start perhaps?).
Want more advice about impact stories? Take a look at this NCVO article.