Why impact assessment remains crucial for good and effective philanthropy


Dan Corry


A lot of good ideas have come from the fashion for so-called trust-based philanthropy. We at NPC have pushed funders to make more of their grants unrestricted for ages, so we were pleased to see more of this during the Covid crisis.

But as ever, you can always have too much of a good thing. In this case, unquestioning trust means downplaying impact assessment – and even the entire impact agenda. We should all know that this is the wrong road to go down.

Yes, there are valid criticisms of old-fashioned impact measurement. It can get too focused on data that is flaky or disproportionally expensive to collect. Worse, it can twist our focus to what we can measure, rather than what matters.

But certainly at NPC we have changed our practices substantially over the years to recognise this. We do few measures of Social Return On Investment. We encourage smaller charities and their funders to collect less but more useful data. We argue against the idea that evaluation must always be reaching up to the pinnacle of a Randomised Control Trial. We have also emphasised the importance of qualitative data – not just quantitative.

To give up on trying to use philanthropy in the best way would be foolish indeed. NPC was set up twenty years ago to bring rigour and analysis to our sector, to help funders and philanthropists to do the most good for the people they serve. To be less reliant on heart and anecdote alone – important though they can be. We must not give up on that agenda.

Without some kind of an impact assessment we knock out the little accountability that philanthropists, and charities themselves, are subject to. Rather than shifting power, we let the power dynamic rip. So let’s not tear it all up.

A more profound critique is that traditional impact measurement has been far too top down – just like its public sector cousin New Public Management.

It’s true that at times we have forgotten the people who really matter. We must include the people we are trying to help in our decisions, our implementation, and our evaluation. If we don’t, we will end up spending resource in the wrong ways – there is no point in plotting the fastest route to a destination that nobody actually wants to go to!

Many of us have been on this journey for some time. We know that the questions we all ask need to be guided far more by those in the communities and households that we aim to help. We need more involvement, more participatory grant making, more from peer researchers, and we need to exploit the possibilities of digital and data to understand and get more feed in. We need to experiment with the kind of things we are trying out in our Open Philanthropy work – where multi-stakeholder panels decide where grants should go.

We need to get that balance right. We must stay well clear of the enticing and slippery slope back to where some in our sector feel most comfortable, where we don’t try to look at outcomes and their achievements in a rigorous way at all.

If we give up on impact assessment there will be waste, and likely scandals too when we find that no or little impact is being achieved. That may not matter to a funder with a lot of money to dish out with little due diligence or desire for metrics, but I’m sure it would matter to those whose lives have not been improved as much as they could have been.  

So the key is not to throw away all the top-down techniques but to bring them together with bottom-up methods. Traditional evaluation must not be chucked in the bin – good longitudinal data, attempts to create control groups, doing sound quantitative work are all important. But so too is user-involvement.

For Balanced Evaluation we need both top-down and bottom-up approaches. And that is how we will help philanthropy improve.

Dan Corry is Chief Executive of NPC.

Tagged in: Funding practice Trust-based philanthropy

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