Prove it or Lose it: Why Proof of Impact Matters in the Social Impact Space

It's more important than ever for social impact organizations to be able to prove impact to stakeholders. Here's how to do it well.
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Proof of impact is of utmost importance for those working in the social impact space. It’s how social impact organizations measure and demonstrate the success of their programs. And it’s the only kind of ROI that exists for investors, from individual donors and volunteers to major funders.

Most social impact organizations are already accustomed to evaluating particular dimensions of their programming to fulfill grant requirements. But in order to rally as much support as possible around their mission and work, organizations must also make proof of impact a core part of their broader marketing and communications programs.

Doing this well requires a different mindset than the one needed to complete grant evaluations. Organizations must proactively collect the most compelling impact metrics and translate that raw data into emotionally resonant, human-centered stories. They must demonstrate their impact in a way that shows measurable results and gets at the heart of why their work matters.

Proof of Impact is Critical to Effective Communications and Fundraising

Funders and volunteers want reassurance that their time and money is (or will be) well-spent. They want to know that the organizations they support are making a real difference, and that that difference is a net positive. It comes down to trust. Trust that your organization knows its stuff and really walks the walk.

Of course, statistics and metrics are the most obvious forms of proof. They have the power to establish the validity of your organization and its approach.

But data alone isn’t enough. You must offer proof of your impact in the form of a story, and you must do it in a way that sheds light on the human connections that give it meaning and urgency.

The truth is that most people (and even foundations) decide whether or not to support particular causes and organizations not with their logical brains, but with their hearts. Much like shopping, support is values-based and emotions-driven. Human stories that tug at your supporters’ heartstrings will always result in more support and donations than even the most powerful statistics. Data and metrics lend credence to the veracity of those stories, but they can’t tell the stories on their own.

All social impact organizations worth their salt are passionate about maximizing their impact. In order to do so, they must first use data and emotional storytelling to show their work is already moving the needle.

Why Nonprofits Struggle to Fully Leverage Their Proof of Impact

Most social impact organizations know they need to tell their stories to inspire action. At the same time, they struggle to do so in a way that fully captivates and motivates their supporters. Too often, proof of impact in narrative form is the missing ingredient.

We don’t have to tell you that measuring and evaluating impact is hard. That’s especially true when you consider that many social impact organizations are chronically underfunded in terms of marketing and communications. They often don’t have the budget or staff required to focus on impact reporting. Or, they may be so focused on the work at hand that they simply don’t remember to document their efforts in the necessary ways. Sometimes, this can be as simple as neglecting to take professional-grade photographs of a special event or activity that could be used to give an organization’s proof of impact a human touch.

Social impact organizations are accustomed to reporting on their work in order to satisfy grant requirements. This data can sometimes be utilized in telling a larger proof of impact story, but that’s not a given. Each individual grant is liable to evaluate an organization’s work from a different angle, and that data may or may not tell a larger, cohesive story about an organization’s overall impact.

Organizations that pursue systems-level change may find proof of impact especially challenging to communicate. For one thing, the work they do is more abstract and complex. It may not be readily understood by those outside their particular neighborhood of the impact space. In addition, their impact may be harder to measure, especially when it produces a systemic ripple effect rather than a 1:1 end result. For these organizations, emotional storytelling is especially critical. The onus is on them to translate complex issues into human-centered stories in which both the issues and their impact can be clearly understood by a lay audience.

How Nonprofits Can Meaningfully Prove Impact

In our work with social impact organizations, we guide them in creating impact stories that marry metrics with emotional storytelling for maximum power. In broad strokes, organizations that want to do this must:

Measure impact in the right ways.

Go beyond grant requirements to tell a bigger, more cohesive story of your organization’s impact. Depending on the kind of work you do, this could mean connecting big-picture ideas to individual impact (such as translating a reduction in carbon emissions to a specific number of trees saved). Or, it could mean connecting stories of individuals who have benefited from your work (such as adults who have learned to read in an adult literacy program) to a larger community impact (access to better jobs, reduced rates of homelessness, and so on). Metrics can also be used to show human connection levels and engagement so that the people you are communicating with understand how you build and maintain a community. We used this exact tactic in our work with The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We’re pretty sure no grant has ever required its recipients to document the number of hugs between strangers.

Use the data to tell emotionally driven, human-centered stories.

Many organizations make the mistake of crafting a proof of impact message that is comprised of insider-speak. In other words, it’s written in a way that will likely resonate with other nonprofit leaders and experts within their particular area of specialization. If your proof of impact requires a master’s degree to understand, you aren’t telling it in a way that will connect with your actual supporters. For example, we worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to produce a digital annual report that includes a host of compelling impact data but looks and reads like a special edition of National Geographic.

Weave those stories throughout their communications materials.

Proof of impact should be woven throughout your organization's marketing and communications programs. This includes your:

Update their proof of impact as the scope or breadth of their efforts change.

Organizations that pivot or organically increase the scope or breadth of their efforts must remember to provide proof of impact that reflects their current goals and activities. When proof of impact doesn’t align with your organization's current initiatives or broader focus, your audience is left to wonder what your organization is actually about. Likewise, if your organization has long devoted itself to a particular issue, your proof of impact can highlight this long-term commitment. That’s exactly what we did in our work with The Lakota People’s Law Project (particularly the timeline of milestones).

Your organization works hard to make an important impact. But until you start measuring your progress and telling the story of your impact in the most compelling possible terms, your supporters may never know it.

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