A Question About Impact: By Whom, For Whom, and Definitions


Everyone seems to be talking about it. Most say they want it. But who really gets to define impact and for whom?

That was the first question our team sought to answer as part of our recent collaborative effort with Women Moving Millions. Here’s what we found:

TECHNICAL DEFINITIONS: The program evaluator perspective

There was broad consensus among program evaluation experts and some foundation leaders that impact is characterized by a tight causal link between action and change. In addition, that change – or impact – must be measurable, and generally must include consideration of what might have happened in the absence of the action.

COLLOQUIAL DEFINITIONS: The donor (including some foundations), nonprofit and impact investor perspective


In contrast to the relative consensus found among program evaluation experts, these groups demonstrated considerable diversity regarding the use and implied definitions of impact. Definitions ran along a continuum; some hewed closely to the technical (as described above) while others tended toward a more colloquial idea of impact as ‘something good’, not necessarily a measurable change directly attributable to a gift or grant. Individual donors were also more apt to describe impact as having two aspects: the impact of their philanthropy on others, but also the impact that their philanthropic giving and involvement had on the donors themselves.

Why do these different definitions matter? A clear definition of impact drives strategy, decisions, and dollars. Different – but unvoiced – assumptions about the definition of impact can create communication difficulties between donors, grantees, and beneficiaries; these miscommunications can get in the way of the very change sought.

MISSING DEFINITIONS: The beneficiary perspective

Many social programs operate with a top-down approach: socioeconomic data indicate a need in a certain population, or a donor has a particular connection to a topic. Funders provide resources to nonprofits to implement programs to address the original need, collecting data to understand that program’s impact. But what if the target population would actually identify their need differently?

The market dynamics of philanthropy encourage this top-down approach, making donors the ‘customers’ for the services of nonprofits, even though they are not the ultimate consumers. For donors focused on improving the lives of others, two questions can be clarifying in the effort to define impact:

  1. What is the difference you want to make?
  2. Is that difference meaningful to the people you hope to help?

While the answers to those two questions may evolve over time, addressing them is the best first step for any donor seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In an upcoming post, we’ll suggest additional ways to include beneficiary perspectives in both impact definition and program design.

This blog post is part of our ongoing series: Five Myths and a Question About Impact and is based on a paper that we will make available on our website in the coming weeks.