Impact Myths: Attribution and Contribution

Whose Impact Is It, Anyway?

In our ongoing series on impact, we address five myths and a question about impact definition. This week, we discuss our second myth:

“There is no impact unless I caused it.”

In  Risky Business, a piece on uncertainty in social interventions, Paul Brest asks us to imagine a group of villagers pushing a boulder up a hill, trying to get it out of a dangerously unstable spot. They’re moving slowly, and they ask for your help.  You join in, and eventually you all get the boulder to the top. And that’s where the trouble starts – because the goal was reached, but who gets the credit?  Was your contribution essential? Was it even helpful?

It’s a good analogy for high impact philanthropy, where donors and the organizations they support work to make progress against challenges that have been resistant to easy solutions.  Success is the result of collective action.

Consider an organization working to improve the economic and social status of women.  Let’s imagine that while women are heavily involved in agriculture in a particular country, they do not have the right to own land, which is a constraint on their earnings.  This organization, along with others, mounts an advocacy campaign around women’s land rights.  Even if there is a clear, visible success—passage of a land rights bill, for instance– it will be very difficult for any one of the many groups involved to say “This is our impact. We were the ones that made this happen.”

Attribution – “Owning the Impact”

As we discuss in our recent paper and in an earlier posting, for program evaluators, “impact” usually means the change that happened as a result of an action. That tight causal link between action and change– and the consideration of what would have happened without the action– is central to the evaluator’s technical definition of impact. Once that causal link is established, the impact of a particular action can be assessed.

For donors and the organizations they support, this is incredibly important: establishing the link between their interventions and the social change they seek gives them confidence that they are on the right path and that resources were put to good use. Considering attribution is crucial for anyone involved in working for a change.  But focusing too narrowly on attribution can bring its own set of problems—because sometimes real impact can occur in situations where: a.) multiple factors or actors contributed to the observable change, and/or b.) it’s very difficult or prohibitively costly to accurately pinpoint which of many factors is most responsible for the observed change.

Contribution  – “Part of the Winning Team”

The fact that the women’s rights organization cannot “own” the ultimate success of the advocacy campaign does not, however, mean that there was no impact or that the organization is off the hook for thinking about its own impact.  While the precision of a randomized control trial is clearly off the table (there is no possibility of a control with a national advocacy campaign, and besides, they were one of many groups involved), there are other methods and metrics that can be used to understand the importance of an organization’s contribution (e.g. interviews with beneficiaries, other actors and lawmakers about the organization’s strategy and influence).

Returning to our boulder, one thing is certain: the boulder started out at the bottom of the hill, and now it’s at the top. That’s measurable, observable impact. And one other thing is certain: it got to the top because you and that group of people pushed it. Did you (or any one of you) cause anything that wouldn’t have happened otherwise? Perhaps you’ll never know with perfect certainty. But the boulder is where it needs to be.