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We use impact to mean the difference that a whole organisation, major programme or practice makes to a community of interest, geography or issue over the long-term.

Outcome: We use outcome to mean the immediate difference that a project or practice makes to an individual, group or organisation.




Every voluntary organisation we work with wants to describe and explain the difference that they make. They are interested in learning from and adapting their work to continuously improve. How they approach this varies and they may not use the term ‘impact’ at all.


There is immense pressure to demonstrate impact through research, evaluation and evidence. Some of this pressure flows from the way commissioning and voluntary sector finance works. To some degree, demonstrating impact has become linked to the way markets operate – payment by results, for example – meaning that what ‘impact’ means and how it can be ‘demonstrated’ have become intertwined. A market in impact measurement has emerged with a high volume of guides, courses and consultancy. It can sometimes feel like it is an end in itself rather than a means to the end goal of tackling injustice or achieving positive social change.





Form follows

Approach impact assessment in a way that is appropriate to need, meaningful to audiences and proportionate to circumstance – that means really nailing down the purpose before choosing an approach.



There is no single approach that will be appropriate, meaningful or proportionate in every case. A variety of approaches are needed that can be developed and adapted to different organisations.

Impact assessment – not measurement

We believe qualitative and quantitative data – stories and numbers – sit side by side: they are complementary, equally important; both credible and both illuminating.


Why do you want to assess impact?


Is there something special to focus on?


Who do you want to tell?

What resources (money and people) do you have for this?


What would be the best methods to use?

  • The context in which organisations operate always matters
  • Using the same assessment tools in different contexts can be problematic
  • Different contexts demand different forms of impact assessment
  • No single approach works in all contexts
  • Ask yourself, ‘From what perspective might we most usefully examine the difference we make?’


Our reading of earlier research, our observations about what is driving organisations to engage with impact assessment, and our discussions with funders all confirm that the context in which organisations operate is significant. The transfer of assessment tools across different operating contexts is problematic and the notion of searching for ‘standardised best practice’ in organisational effectiveness has been disputed.


Our research indicates that there is a need for a variety of approaches to impact assessment that can be developed and adapted to the needs of different organisations. It confirms that the search for ‘the best approach to impact assessment’ is unhelpful – there is no single approach. Instead, we suggest that practitioners and their funders ask themselves and one another the following question: ‘In the current context, from what perspective (or angle) might we most usefully examine the difference we make?’


Films & blogs

Photo of Marilyn Taylor

06 November 2016

Getting on the impact bandwagon

Marilyn Taylor

IVAR associate, Professor Marilyn Taylor shares her thinking on Impact.

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19 October 2016

Community organisations push back on ‘data burden’

Mary Darking

Through academic collaboration and partnership working, organisations push back on the burden of monitoring, evaluation and impact.

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