In defence of impact assessment: Love is great but love that achieves something is even better

A suspicion of what charities actually deliver is holding back donations

Lots of us give to charity because we feel passionate about the cause, we want to do our bit, and we hope that some good arises. So if the charity helps young people  find employment, we hope that more of them get a job than would have done otherwise. Or if we give to support a new reading scheme for deprived children, we hope that their reading skills really do improve.

Many of us don’t actually ask the question though – does whatever we donate to really change things? Or do we just hand over the money and hope? People who work in the charity sector are not in it to make a profit; they do it because they care. So naturally we assume they must be making a difference.

But I am afraid this is not always the case. The world is littered with projects that have great aims and good intentions, but that actually - when the analysis is done - take in charitable income and achieve very little. Charities that actually don’t reduce re-offending rates relative to what would have happened without their intervention. Charities in developing countries that deliver things they think will work, but that good, randomized trial evaluations show didn’t make things much better. We sometimes find that if money had gone to a different charity with similar objectives, but a better-established delivery method, it would have had a greater impact on more people’s lives.

Some might say this is just something you have to live with in the charity sector. Because if the bean-counters come to town, they would get rid of the passion, the mission, and reduce everything to nuts and bolts, to pounds and pence, and miss on out the real meaning of charitable activity. But this, to be quite honest, is tosh. Of course you have to be sensitive and of course not everything can be measured. But we can certainly try.

NPC’s new research shows that one of the things holding back donations is a concern that some charities do not really know if they are achieving anything, and so the sector has fewer funds than it would have otherwise.

You might think it’s right to resist the concept of impact, but it would mean letting down the very people we are all trying to help. Is that really ‘love’?

Dan Corry is Chief Executive of the charity think tank and consultancy NPC