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Simple tips for communicating about impact – Part 1

Simple tips for communicating about impact – Part 1

As we work on the development of a Sector Driven Evaluation Strategy, we have learned that one of the tricks to succeeding at outcome evaluation happens before you even get to the stage of designing surveys or completing reports. It involves focussing your measurement on a small number of concrete, measurable outcomes that are more or less within your control. Picking those outcomes can be challenging, and explaining them effectively to your target audiences can take some practice. So, one of the first steps in measuring impact is getting into the habit of talking about your work in impact language. This blog offers a few simple tips that might be helpful, even if you don’t have a lot of impact data yet. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we cover more great tips for communicating your impact!

Tip #1: Build your message to talk about the specific action you are taking.

Many people in Ontario don’t have a good understanding of the causes of complex social issues and the implications if they are not addressed. Nonprofits confront this lack of awareness all the time and it can be tempting to focus your organizational “pitch” at this level. We often want to stand on a rooftop and yell “this is a problem, and we need to acknowledge it!” However, your communication may not have the desired effect if your message stops at this point. You may have trouble convincing your audience to support you if you don’t go on to explain why your approach to addressing the problem is impactful. Here is a helpful example that shows how you might build a message that names the problem, and explains how your approach will make a difference:

DON’T ONLY SAY: “Rates of spousal abuse continue to rise in our community. We need to take action.”

INSTEAD SAY: “Our work is focusing on helping women build safety plans, which is a key step in helping them obtain and maintain stable housing.”

Tip #2: Explain why your plan for impact is viable.

Some nonprofits seek support for an untested idea or an idea that hasn’t been developed into a viable plan. They attempt to gain support on good intentions alone, and they don’t present a solid case about why their approach is a smart investment. It’s the difference between saying “we hope this work will help” and saying “we’ve considered the options, and this approach has solid chance of success.” Here’s another example of building a message that makes the case for impact:

DON’T ONLY SAY: “Our program will help youth succeed using social media.”

INSTEAD SAY: “We have a good track record in helping homeless youth build better social skills and set life goals. Over the last two years, we’ve helped 25 of our participants make progress towards goals related to education, employment, and family relationships. We are working hard to reach out to youth with addictions issues. Our online harm reduction approach seems to work especially well for this population.”

Tip #3: Avoid outlier stories that don’t link strongly to your core outcomes.

Many nonprofits run into trouble when they focus on stories that aren’t representative of the work they do. Most nonprofits care greatly about the people they serve and they often get to know their clients very well. Every now and then, one client will succeed in a dramatic and unexpected fashion. The program staff and volunteers who know that person well will be able to see how their efforts to support that person contributed to this success, but outsiders may not be able to connect the dots so easily. Sometimes, nonprofits become over-reliant on a small number of stories that are impressive in isolation, but not very clearly tied to their core purpose or very representative of their day-to-day work. Another scenario:

DON’T ONLY SAY: “One of our participants ended up getting a great job through someone she met here at our basic life skills program!”

INSTEAD SAY: “Our program helps people with intellectual disabilities develop life goals and access the supports they need to move forward on those goals. For example, we had one participant who used the plan we helped her develop to get a job working with one of our partners.”

The first example seems to suggest that the program is focused on getting people jobs — even though it is a basic life skills program, focused on helping people who are not yet ready for independent employment. The second version uses the same story, but explains clearly how the story is an illustration of the program’s core work.

Key Takeaways:

Communicating about your program in a way that emphasizes impact is a great way to build support for your work. People find this kind of communication compelling because it answers the questions so what? and why should I care? The key things to remember are:

1. Focus. Talk about a small number of outcomes that are in your wheelhouse. Talk about them consistently.

2. Listen. Show that you know and use local research on social issues. Show that you know your unique niche and how your work complements and enhances what others are doing.

3. Share. Show that you are committed to ongoing feedback. Show that you can contribute useful data to a shared impact report. Acknowledge your mistakes as well as your successes. Demonstrate that you have learned from your evaluation and that you are adapting.

4. Engage. Seek out opportunities to talk about impact and to understand it in more depth. Using your own behaviour as an example, invite your funders and partners to focus, to know their context, and to share.

For part 2, click here.

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1. Join us for great Evaluation sessions at ONN Conference 2015!

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Andrew Taylor
Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor thinks evaluation is only useful if it answers questions that matter and enables people to act in new ways. He is co-owner of Taylor Newberry Consulting, a Guelph-based firm that specializes in developing research and evaluation solutions for public sector organizations. He is also ONN's Resident Evaluation Expert. He has helped organizations across Canada develop impact strategies and measurement systems that are evidence based, manageable, and meaningful.

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