This article was first published by the Society of Impact Assessment Analysts
‘If something isn’t working, do something else’, goes the saying. Though it sounds obvious, we often don’t follow this advice. Many of the social and environmental issues we’ve been trying to address for years persist; clearly, our approaches aren’t working very well.
Hence there is a clear need for innovation in tackling entrenched social problems. However, if we demand evidence of an organisation’s past performance, we in effect discriminate against innovations, which don’t yet have a track record.
And yet there is a way to judge them. Good charities will have good ideas, and implement them effectively. If you’re into formulae, think of it as: Impact = idea x implementation.
Any good organisation will be able to answer the following questions, at the very least:
- What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?
- What activities does the organisation do?
- How do those activities help solve the problem?
- How do you find out whether you are achieving anything? (i.e., what is the research process?)
- What are you achieving? (i.e. what results does that process produce?)
- How are you learning and improving? What examples do you have of learning and improving?
The answer to judging innovations lies in the third question. This, of course, asks for the organisation’s theory of change: the logical route through which its actions are supposed to achieve its intended impact. An established charity should have evidence that connects its activities to its goal: when it distributes chlorine at village water pumps in Kenya, diarrhoea declines, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
A charity with a new or complicated theory of change can’t do that. But any charity should be able to produce some evidence for each stage of its theory of change. This distinguishes it from an organisation taking a random punt on something utterly unknown. The evidence won’t come from its own work, which hasn’t yet yielded fruit; but it will come from analogous circumstances.
For instance, TippingPoint addresses climate change by bringing together performance artists, visual artists and climate scientists in the hope that artists will be inspired to create work in response, raise awareness of the problem and spur action. It has a great long theory of change with loads of links – and obviously it’s too long to be able to demonstrate that every time TippingPoint runs an event, carbon emissions decline.
However, it is possible to produce evidence for each link in the chain. For example, one link is that artistic activity can influence public attitudes and action. This has been powerfully demonstrated for over a century. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, an essay in photojournalism published in 1890, revealed New York’s slums to many influential people for the first time, and was credited with inspiring political reforms that improved the lives of millions. Similarly, the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with changing American attitudes towards slavery. Another link is that public awareness drives action, for which evidence might come from public campaigns to discourage drink-driving.
So, though an innovative programme can’t prove its impact, it can (and should) have evidence which supports its theory of change. They’re not taking a wild leap into the dark, but are working on a hunch, which presumably comes from something.
We shouldn’t discriminate against innovation. But we should consider which innovations are likely to work, and which aren’t.
Source: ‘an essay in photojournalism’: Riis J., 1890, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.