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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is social impact?

An organisation or project’s social impact is the totality of how that activity changes the people or places that come into contact with it. The change can be positive or negative, expected or unexpected.

2. Why does this guide talking about ‘exploring’ social impact rather than measuring or valuing it?

The authors of this guide have done a lot of work with small and medium-sized organisations around impact. We find it helpful to make a distinction between:

  • Identifying types of impact
  • Measuring or estimating (i.e. putting a quantity on) the extent of impact
  • Explaining the implications of your impact (either through simple analysis and reporting, contextualising against a background of existing research and practise or doing a form of cost benefit analysis).

We know that some initiatives will only have the time and capacity to identify their impacts. Others will want to estimate the quantity of change and still others will want to collect hard data on quantity. Some will put aside the time and effort to work out how much value that impact has to the people involved, to the state or to other stakeholders. As you can see, all of these approaches are ‘exploring’ impact, but not all of them are measuring or valuing.
This guide has been written from the understanding that any exploration of impact can be useful to an organisation, however far it is taken and whether the approach includes measuring and valuing or not.

3. Every time I hear the word ‘outcome’ used people seem to mean different things – what does outcome mean in this guide?

This guide uses the word outcome to mean the individual types of change that occur for people or places as a result of their contact with your initiative. The total change is referred to as your impact (i.e. all the outcomes together).

4. Can I adapt the approach in this guide?

First, note that this guide helps you to plan. It’s not an impact measurement tool itself. Secondly, everyone uses resources differently. While we hope it provides a flexible approach, of course it can and will be adapted. Yet, it’s useful to note that often people want to adapt the very bits of the guide that make people focus on the direct results of activities, rather than on the ‘opportunity’ the activity presents or the number of activities being carried out within the initiative itself. People are often very used to the language of efficiency and satisfaction (measures of quality) rather than outcomes (measures of impact). The template sentences in step 2 have been written specifically to help people avoid this trap of slipping back into what gets done rather than what happens as a result. If you decide you need to adapt the process in any way, make sure it doesn’t lose this emphasis on impact or it loses its purpose.

5. Can I use the approach in this guide to forecast my impact?

Yes – just follow steps 1,2,3 and (if necessary) 4 and once you’ve decided on relevant indicators, use all the information at your disposal (your own experience, available background research, the feedback you’ve had from the people involved) to make a reasonable estimate.
If you plan to ask people to make funding, investment or other decisions based on the information, make sure you have a plan for how to get data to test your estimations at a later date. 

6. Can I use this approach if I’m not involved in a food-related organisation?

Yes – Most of the steps could be used by any initiative. Step 4 includes reference to common outcomes and useful indicators for community food initiatives, but some of these also apply to other organisations. As we present a method for choosing more relevant indicators to your unique activities (step 5) you can work through the entire process on the same basis as food organisations and come out the end with a useful plan.

7. I know our organisation contributed to changing people’s lives – but so did x number of other organisations? Will it be impossible to tell the story of our individual impact?

No impact assessment on earth is watertight and irrefutable. People will always have to have made judgements on how to assess, how much resource they can set aside and how they interpret the findings. There are ways of making sure you do the assessment as well as you can and these are covered in points  12, 13 and 14 below. So don’t get put off if it looks difficult. Just start small and don’t make any wild claims.
There are two ways to tackle multi-partner impact:
a) Either get together with those other organisations, plan and carry out between you some impact work or
b) Work on it on your own, but follow the guidance in point 15 below.

8. My funder is telling me to use a particular approach so is this guide useless to me?

No. It might be best for you to look at Steps 6 and 7 before the other steps, but actually, it’s worth having your own tailored plan for dealing with the impact of all of your activities, funded and non-funded so that you know what you are doing and why.

9. How much time in total will it take me to follow all the steps in this guide?

The steps are not for completing all at once and not everyone does all of them. They can be spread over a couple of months as long as someone keeps an eye on the process.
Step 1 – Two hour meeting (2 – 10 people)
Step 2 – Two to four weeks total, but within that between 5 and 10 hours split between 2 - 4 different people within the organisation
Step 3 – 1 hour
Step 4 – 1 hour
Step 5 – up to 3 hours
Step 6 – 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending
Step 7 – 10 minutes to a couple of hours, depending

10. How is this approach different to a basic common sense understanding of impact where you simply know there has been change?

Often, if you are working within a community food initiative, you can see the impact you are having on a daily basis. This is because you are meeting and talking to customers, community members, volunteers or trainees. You have a flourishing plot in front of you that was a piece of wasteland a year ago. For you, it seems obvious that there has been an impact.

The approach in this guide does not doubt or devalue this experience, but highlights that it is only the first part (identifying outcomes from individual experience) of a larger process of telling a story. This guide is about finding the level of enquiry that is right for your initiative.

11. How can we calculate our impact quickly and without much effort but know that we have rock solid evidence of that impact?

Exploring impact is an active process that takes some time. Sometimes it can also involve spending money, for instance if you want to undertake some relevant training or get someone in to help you collect or analyse data.

It is important to note that there is no way of exploring impact that is both quick, easy and cost free and thorough, tailored specifically to the organisation and robust. Every time someone explores impact they are deciding how to balance these factors to get the best indication of their impact they can for the time, effort and money they are willing to put into the process.

12. What is the hallmark of a good impact assessment?

However far you want to take it, your activity will be most valuable if it:

  • Is systematic – you go looking for information, rather than letting it come to you ‘as and when’
  • Is verifiable – you work in a transparent way that lets others see what you have found out and how
  • Contains a number of checks to make sure important factors have been considered – like checking whether any change you observe is down to your activity or something else
  • Can be repeated in the same way to provide similar types of information – to help you know how your organisation is changing
  • Is about the organisation or activity not the individual, so if key people move on, the organisation does not lose all its knowledge of impact.

13. How do we make reasonable and believable claims about our impact when we know we are only part of what makes a difference to the people or places involved?

This is an important point and should not be overlooked. However, it does not have to stop people who need or want to measure from going ahead and having a go. Too often people worry about this so much they never attempt to explore their impact because it seems an overwhelming task. This is a shame, because the people who already know that their exploration will need to be reasonable and well grounded in reality are those who will do the most responsible and interesting impact assessments.
The key ways to make sure you stick to what is credible are:

  • Making sure the people who benefit are involved in some way throughout the process of exploring impact, to check you are on the right tracks and to keep you claims reasonable
  • Asking people involved who and what else has been involved in contributing to the change you are identifying or measuring – ask them to estimate how much they think each contributed. Sometimes people can do this, sometimes they can’t. You’ll only know through piloting.
  • Keeping your own exploration tightly focused only on the local and tangible things you think you can have an influence on
  • Being honest and reflecting thoughtfully – explaining what you did to collect your information, what you think you can tell from it, what you know you can’t tell from it
  • Learning from existing approaches like Social Return on Investment (see step 6) which include explicit reference to issues of attribution, displacement, deadweight and drop-off

15. You keep talking about social impact measurement – is that Social Return on Investment or Social Accounting and Audit?

No. ‘Social impact measurement’ is a generic term for any kind of approach to looking at the extent of the impact you are having.

Social Return on Investment (SROI) and Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) are very specific methods of doing social impact measurement, developed by different organisations and carried out in a particular way.

Just as all cows are animals, but all animals aren’t cows – SROI and SAA are social impact measurement approaches, but not all social impact measurement approaches are SROI or SAA.

These materials were designed and developed by The Guild and Middlesex University on behalf of The Plunkett Foundation as part of the Making Local Food Work programme funded by The Big Lottery Fund.

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