Keeping track of impact before, during, and after completion of key periods of engagement can provide you with a base level from which to better understand the value of your work. This means looking beyond the amount of money spent and delving deeper into how it was spent, what it achieved, and which factors could have further amplified a projects’ success in hindsight.
For this latest edition of community stories, I spoke with Impact Hub Ottawa’s Impact Coach Ashraful Hasan, founder of innovation and evaluation consulting firm Impactrio.
We discussed his fascinating journey helping changemakers thread the needle between financial sustainability and measurable impact while staying accountable to the people they are trying to help.
A journey of interests, intellect, and measured risk-taking.
Ashraful grew up in Bangladesh where he completed an undergraduate degree in economics, focusing heavily on the locally pertinent topics of poverty, social business, and the impacts of different types of development programs operating in the region. This provided Ashraful with early exposure to the impact space, mostly from a researcher’s point of view, and ultimately, an opportunity to study poverty in the field.
“Poverty is an acute challenge. It’s one thing when people don’t have food or water, but another if people don’t have hope that tomorrow they’ll have food or water. When you see your family or others in this position, it’s a scary situation. [If this is your reality] you have to think about both the efficiency and equity of distribution of your resources, as well as the systemic nature of your problem – how it exists in the greater market operation – and finally, how the context of all these areas define the life you are living at the micro-level.”
This was, in part, the perspective Ashraful brought when he arrived in Canada, looking to further his studies. After stints at both York University and Ryerson University, he found himself asking, “where am I going?” While the usual path for many in his line of study was working in the financial industry, he changed course to seek work in fields where the impact of his contribution to society might be clearer.
So in 2011, despite being an international student with little inside knowledge of the industry or experience in Canada, Ashraful started exploring the field of impact evaluation, where he could apply his knowledge of economics and finance and be part of the social impact space.
Ashraful’s dedication to learning, passion for social impact, and easy-going nature shone; he started researching ways to break into the field by finding relevant people to take out for coffee meetings, attending events, shadowing established impact evaluation experts. This allowed him to build a working framework and thought process, later accepting a role as an Impact Advisor and eventually creating Impactrio, Ashraful’s Impact Evaluation firm.
“I’m so grateful to all these people who, I don’t know why, gave their time to an unknown immigrant to talk about their work, but I learned so much in that process.”
What does Impact Mean to You?
For Ashraful, no conversation on impact measurement and evaluation can start without first discussing what impact actually is and what it isn’t. For example, thinking about doing good work is not impact, and oftentimes, neither are many of the important activities undertaken in trying to facilitate that good work, such as setting targets, identifying potential reach, increasing awareness, and creating strategies to facilitate learning and unlearning.
“It’s only once your target audience has enjoyed a tangible improvement in their conditions of being [following your intervention or action] that impact has taken place.”
Understanding the Impact Feasibility Dilemma
One of the main challenges facing those who want to facilitate positive social impact is financial sustainability. While this might sound like a very for-profit problem, having a passion for doing impactful work does not automatically ensure that you’ll have the necessary financial resources to achieve your mission.
Success in your objectives often depends on being able to secure and maintain funding. Here are three tips from Ashraful to help you maneuver through this impact feasibility dilemma:
- Design your project with your desired impact in mind, then work backward to make sure you outline the realistic steps, capacity, and tools needed to guide you there. Many people come into the impact space with great ideas, but little capacity to execute them, that’s why designing an effective project plan from the start is so important.
- Craft a compelling impact story that you can share with potential funders. A few indicators or graphs won’t win anyone over. A powerful impact story will help funders recognize and understand the problem, become invested in the solution you are providing, and lead them to invest in your project. You need to make the case that investment in you, your project, or your organization will ensure a positive impact that might not have otherwise taken place.
- Once you’ve received initial funding, always keep note of the steps you take, then find ways to optimize your work. Think about how you can show that your initial idea has transformed into a manageable, stable project which continues to have sustained impact and is ready to be scaled. This is where an organization that has created an impact measurement and evaluation strategy can thrive: through showing that it has effectively tracked, managed, and measured its impact, which can then be reported to funders for continued support.
- Consider becoming an Impact Hub Ottawa Virtual Member. This gives you access to our team of Coaches, community Slack, and all kinds of perks and resources to help you grow your business or career!
Differentiating Impact Measurement with Impact Evaluation
When discussing impact, it’s important to focus not only on your impact, but also the process you took to achieve it. While we can report on activities and preach effectiveness by showing that resources were invested towards a good cause, we only learn the full extent of a project’s impact by evaluating every step taken within its respective context.
“Impact evaluation doesn’t just measure that final piece of change in a given condition, it evaluates every step of the process.” What did the transition from good ideas to meaningful action look like? Were the existing conditions properly analyzed? Did the process lead to a change in conditions such as improved skillset or mindset at the individual level, or change in policy improvements at the community level?
Creating tangible change in people’s lives isn’t a straightforward process, but effective evaluation can help you better understand your failures and build on your successes. As Ashraful reminds us when it comes to measuring whether or not impact has taken place, “we do not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, we ask to what extent and in what context.”
Context is key in evaluation, as the indicators often used to track impact can be meaningless if they aren’t presented within the right context. This could mean taking into account the diversity of people’s lived experiences in your project design, tracking what their lives looked like before and after your intervention, and using effective demographic data when compiling your results.
Impact measurement and evaluation are closely tied to the theme of accountability and go beyond simply reporting results to funders. It’s about taking full account of the steps taken to achieve impact, and analyzing them critically to see whether a more efficient or impactful process could have taken place. In this way, accountability is also directed to the beneficiaries whose lives can be tangibly improved through effectively planned and structured impact-focused initiatives.
When funds are invested in an initiative that does not reach its full potential, this reflects a lost opportunity, especially if great care is not taken to evaluate how the project could have been more successful. So if our ambition is to create systems that bring about tangible, positive change in people’s lives, then a priority of ours should always be to maximize the potential impact given the resources we have at our disposal.
By better understanding impact not just through measurement of the end result, but effective evaluation of every step taken to get there, we’re more capable of streamlining the processes and maximizing future impact.
Ashraful’s firm Impactrio helps individuals and organizations of all sizes design, measure, evaluate and report their impact. If you have questions about impact measurement and evaluation, Ashraful is an Impact Hub Ottawa Coach and is available to all members for one-hour sessions to help you get answers.