Research finds that funders put pressure on charities to measure social impact

Third Sector Research Centre concludes that grant-making agencies see it as a way of exerting control

Professor Fergus Lyon
Professor Fergus Lyon

Social impact measurement is often being imposed on charities by funders and can be seen as a way to exert control, according to a new paper from the Third Sector Research Centre.

Social Impact Evaluation as an Entrepreneurial Process, published last week, analyses social impact evaluation and examines what motivates organisations to measure their social impact and how different stakeholders influence the evaluation process.

Forty voluntary organisations of varying sizes and cause areas were interviewed for the research, 32 of which had carried out social impact measurement. The study was done for the centre by Professor Fergus Lyon of Middlesex University and Dr Malin Arvidson of the University of Southampton.

The paper found that pressure from grant-making agencies was the most common motivation for organisations to measure their impact.

"This paper has illustrated that impact evaluation is a tool that the third sector uses to influence an audience consisting primarily of funders and commissioners," it says. "Measuring impact may be a way of building and enhancing trust, but it is also closely interlinked with exerting control by funders."

It says that organisations had recently noticed a significant change in how funders and commissioners were talking about evaluations. One organisation told researchers that local authorities used to specify what information they wanted, but now they also specified the tools they should use.

"Organisations talk about social impact evaluation as a means to satisfy powerful players in a market place for contracts and philanthropy, and they make use of this evaluation through taking control over something that is portrayed as imposed on them," it says.

The paper also found that there was "much discretion" in how the data was being used.

"Three of the case study organisations reported concerns over other organisations inflating their results," it says. It says this was a source of greater worry among organisations working in a competitive contracting environment.

"This leads to increased suspicion over the authenticity of results and the desire by some organisations to develop auditing procedures that can assess what is written in reports and what is omitted," it says.

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