Impact Myth #5: If I don’t see change, I’ve had no impact

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it still make an impact? This week in our Five Myths and a Question series on impact, we tackle the fifth and final myth:

“If I don’t see change, I’ve had no impact.”

Just as impact isn’t always positive, it’s not always visible as progress towards the change you seek. But if you don’t see change, you might still be having an impact…if you know how to look.

When Impact Means Holding the Line

There are many situations where simply holding the line is a victory. Take the example of an organization working to improve learning levels for disadvantaged students.  Year after year, the students in the program continue to read below grade level.  Disappointing, right?

Except it isn’t.  Learning is cumulative and in the absence of this organization, the learning gap would have widened.  Dramatically.  Students would have fallen farther and farther behind. The organization may not be getting kids all the way to the level desired, but it is definitely having an impact. The key to seeing this impact is comparison – what would have happened in the absence of the program.

Looking beyond “Before and After” to “Compared to What”

Often, before and after is a starting point for measuring impact, but it can be far from the full story. For example, suppose you’re considering the impact of a group that advocates for women’s rights. You fund this organization’s work to change women’s legal status in the region. If you see restrictive laws—perhaps women aren’t legally allowed to drive, or to travel without a male family member—and those restrictions haven’t loosened in the time that group has been active, you might conclude that the advocacy group isn’t very effective.

Where’s the flaw in that? In this case, before your funding and after your funding, the restrictive laws are still on the books. you didn’t see a change for the better, but you also didn’t see a change for the worse. Perhaps the advocacy group blocked the passage of even more restrictive laws, protecting existing rights.  No new rights were added and no change is visible, but the group had impact nonetheless.

Slow and Steady Might Win the Race…Eventually

With big, ambitious goals, impact can’t always be captured within the time frame of a typical evaluation. The suffragette movement in the United States, for instance, was incredibly ambitious and audacious at the time. Progress was slow, and came in fits and starts with many setbacks. If there had been an evaluator trying to assess the suffragettes’ impact early on, they probably wouldn’t have found much– a three- or five- or even ten-year evaluation at the beginning of the movement might not have shown significant change. During that time, however, activists were laying the groundwork necessary for the movement’s eventual, more visible success.

Knowing where and how to look

Sometimes when you don’t see change, that is indeed an indication that you are not achieving your desired impact, and it is time to try a different approach.  But sometimes there is impact: it is just hard to see. Before shifting gears, ask yourself: what would happen without this intervention?  Are there other indicators that we should be looking at?  Is the time frame reasonable for the impact we expect?  Answering these questions should help determine whether it makes sense to stay the course, course correct . . . .or try cutting down a different tree.