Impact: it’s not the work you do, it’s what that work achieves

16 May 2023 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 May 2023

Money is very tight; organisations have to spend it well (photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash)
Money is very tight; organisations have to spend it well (photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash)

Focusing on outcomes won’t address all the third sector’s challenges, but it will help organisations get the most out of whatever resources they have.


Every charity wants to provide as much as it can, within its means.

That has only become more important, given the squeeze felt by the third sector. One half of that squeeze is the funding context, which keeps getting tougher due to weak public finances, huge inflation and households having to tighten their belts. The other half is an increase in demand for services (for, more or less, those same three reasons).

In those circumstances, what can a community and voluntary group do? One vital thing every organisation should do is to check they are properly assessing the impact of their services.

Output should not be measured in the number of services, initiatives or schemes offered. Instead, it should be measured by what those things achieve. The distinction is important.

Some organisations will know this better than others, because impact practice is a relatively new way of working within the third sector (and, indeed, a lot of other places). It’s only seven years since a major international summit was held in Belfast to present the idea locally to charities, businesses and government.

Outcomes and Impact: A Global OBA Summit was attended by the then First and deputy First Ministers, Arlene Foster and the late Martin McGuinness. OBA stands for Outcomes-Based Accountability, which is another way of saying that your work should be judged not by all the things you did, but by the impact it has.


Northern Ireland’s government has been in a state of collapse for large periods of time since that summit took place, in October 2016. However, impact practice still had time to become standardised within the local public sector.

The draft Programme for Government, and government work in general, shifted to an OBA approach in order to properly measure the effectiveness of public services.

Stormont is, of course, a major funder of third sector organisations. Other big funding streams have also steered towards this approach. Organisations competing for financial support should be aware that this is what funders want to see.

But it’s not just about ticking a box to please those who hold the purse strings. Impact working has become best practice because it works.

NI charity Housing Rights has helped put together an article on the NICVA website highlighting how they modernised their work, re-focused on impact and saw the benefits to their core mission.

The organisation says the three key questions are:

  • How much did we do?
  • How well did we do it?
  • Is anyone better off?

By regularly scrutinising their work in this way, the organisation knows and understands itself better. It is able to see how and where its services have had an impact – or not – which allows for better future designs of those services. Small adjustments, big changes, or doing more of the same? Impact practice allows these strategic decisions to be based on evidence.

It is vital to know whether or not your organisation is making a difference. This also allows for greater transparency and accountability within the communities they serve, and with other stakeholders (including funders).

Kate McCauley, Housing Rights CEO, said: “At Housing Rights we care about measuring the impact of our work and we are pleased to be working with other organisations in the sector to share what we’ve learned so far – and to learn from others. Initiatives like the Impact Practice Network help continue the culture of best practice in impact measurement and we are delighted to be involved.”

Any organisation, big or small, can make these changes. And they don’t have to do it alone.

Improving impact

The 2016 OBA summit at the Waterfront Hall was organised by the National Children’s Bureau NI, whose head at the time was Celine McStravick – the recently-appointed CEO of NICVA.

NICVA is at the forefront of helping organisations become more mindful of their impact. The organisation has its own Impact Practice Manager, and outcomes-based working is a key part of its ongoing training courses. It has resources that offer an introduction to these ideas and this approach to services, and tools that can help people communicate their impact.

The organisation is also playing a major role in the construction of an Impact Practice Network here in Northern Ireland which, as you might expect, wants to connect people working in the voluntary, community, and social enterprise sectors to share good practice.

Focusing on outcomes is not a cure all. The funding picture remains troubling. Times are tough, and are likely to remain so – in the short-term, at least.

However, whether awash with cash or counting every penny, all organisations should want to get the most possible impact from their work. The best way to do that is to find ways to measure this impact, track those measurements over time, and ensure that all services have a positive effect and, where possible, that this effect is increasing.

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