ViabilityNet 3.0 is a program that supports local community leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and their ideas. Participants take part in four meetings and four study visits over a one-year period. We also support participants with grants and mentors to make their community projects sustainable and successful going forward and we provide opportunities for inspiration and sharing with other participants. One meeting was dedicated to measuring impact in local communities.
Do you organise riverside breakfasts for young people, intergenerational book clubs, local urban handicraft markets, edible gardening events, street art events or networking lunches for farmers? Did everyone enjoy the event, learn something for themselves and build new contacts during your event? If they come to your next event, the answer is probably yes! But how do you know? How do you find out if something deeper has happened, behind the immediately visible facade, in the deeper context of our communities, cities or villages?
As science has proven, humankind’s behaviour is strongly influencing the whole planet, which is now facing a climate crisis. We have been doing something for centuries without being aware of its impact: burning fossil fuels without knowing the impacts. There are many warning signs saying we should start taking the consequences of our actions and interventions seriously! The basic drive of human existence is to have an impact on our surroundings during our life here on Earth, to leave a footprint behind.
So why not consciously track impact? And why not consciously choose actions that support better communities and a better world?
Learning about impact is complex, it is complicated, and time demanding of course, yet there are many tools available. Particularly if we are ready to do community work, which is complex, complicated and time consuming, we should be ready to do impact measurement as well. Doing impact measurement is not only about scientific knowledge, but about really learning from it and seeing what our interventions are causing, and also gaining deeper knowledge about the community we work in.
If you decide to do impact measurement, be 100% sure that you want to do it and why it is important for you, because it takes time and energy.
When carrying out a well-planned impact measurement process, you will find out what negative and positive changes you have made directly, indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. The process takes you far beyond the positive direct changes that we can observe at first sight.
When talking about events we can easily see, describe and quantify, we have inputs (resources and money we invested in making the activity happen), the actual activities, and outputs (products and services the activity created). But impact will grow only with time. It brings long-term changes and can include both quantitative and qualitative change.
What are inputs, activities, outputs and impacts and are we really causing anything?
Here is an example. Ten years ago, my friends and I were thinking that the Danube embankment was not accessible to local citizens in Budapest, the Danube River was not on the mental map of people living in Budapest and the Danube embankment lacked places that could be used by ordinary people and offer cultural and recreational activities without the pressure of consumption. So we started to organise small events – rock-skipping championships, building colorful benches, 1-3 day festivals – and then bigger ones, such as running a cultural open space for five months and opening a bridge for pedestrians. These were our activities. We invested many hours of work, which were our inputs: a lot of paint and many paint-brushes, wood, volunteer time, rented toilets, hundreds of written facebook posts, etc., and as an outcome we received thousands of Facebook likes, and also thousands of visitors at our activities. Our outputs were dozens of benches to sit on and events to participate in.
Ten years later, the Danube is often featured in the media, there are plenty of new places and activities along the Danube and other groups are organising activities along the Danube on their own. If you walk along the Danube in the city center you can easily see there are more people sitting, walking and using the area.
So we could say we initiated some changes. In reality, we only contributed to this process. Our activities were part of a wider trend of capital cities rediscovering their river embankments, which included Paris, Prague, Warsaw and others. We were functioning in the context of a radical change in tourism in Central and Eastern Europe: more money was invested into river tourism on the Danube, which led to an increase in visitors, and there was a huge increase in tourists coming to Budapest due to the cheap flight boom. Our activities probably resonated with the needs of many others living in the city, many of whom think we need to get closer to nature and to the Danube. Young people use public spaces more actively, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago and the ability to self-organise has changed in certain subcultures, so if you organise something there are immediately five more groups which can join you.
Our example shows that nothing operates in isolation in our world, we are constantly influencing each other and our actions are deeply rooted in the given context. Therefore it is important to know what the change was and what our contribution to the change was. Of course, to track complex processes we can involve sociologists and develop a well-planned process. But we can also make it small and start to use creative ways to get feedback, look more deeply at what our activities leave behind and learn about the community we work in.
How can you obtain information about your impact?
There is plenty of literature describing how to obtain data, such as surveys, questionnaires, social media, newspapers, observations, guided walks, talks and conversations.
If this article has made you so excited about impact measurement that you would like to try it right away, you can use the playful tool photovoice, which is a qualitative method used to document and reflect reality in community-based participatory research. Participants photograph scenes that highlight research themes, which helps them express their points of view about their communities. Even though the method was developed in international development, it can be used in any community. The power of photovoice is that it works with symbols. People take pictures of symbols that they choose themselves, so it helps us dig more deeply into the realm of associations and hard-to-describe stories or feelings.
And if you get confused with too much data, too many reflections and questions or digging deeper to understand the why’s: Keep calm, science has an expression for it: paralysis of analysis!
Enjoy and measure your community work!