One of the questions we often hear from social purpose organizations when it comes to impact measurement is “where do I start?” For a busy, capacity-constrained team, it can be difficult to see the value in learning to do impact measurement in ways that feed deep learning, iteration, and organizational improvement. Too often, impact measurement is treated as an arduous and necessary task on a “to do” list for funders or investors that sits outside of daily operations.
This blog is the second in a three-part series highlighting one organization’s journey to use impact measurement for an expanded purpose. It is intended to help other social purpose organizations reimagine impact measurement as a key, indispensable tool in their strategic and operating framework.
Furniture Bank and measuring through exploration
Start with your gut
In reflecting on what Furniture Bank has learned in engaging with essential impact measurement practices, Dan Kershaw—the organization’s Executive Director—focuses on the power of (often untapped) institutional knowledge. “Early on, we had a hunch. And I think that’s where it always starts. Most charities—no—all charities have hunches. You, your program manager or your operations manager have instincts into unassessed areas where you’re affecting change.”
To get at its hunches, the Furniture Bank team came together through a simple brainstorming exercise. “We ended up creating a wall of sticky notes. Many included hunches on short and medium-term results. We also teased out a few long-term assumptions when we looked at the impact stories that have come back to us over the years, ” says Dan.
One such key hunch was rooted in environmental impact. “We know intuitively that if you keep 4 million pounds of furniture out of landfill, that is a good thing. But how do you start to measure and translate this impact in a way that increases public understanding and sparks interest from people that could accelerate your work?”
Engage potential collaborators to develop and iterate on hunches
In exploring the answer to this question, Dan and his team identified potential collaborators across the environmental landscape—from waste management professionals to city officials and academics—and began knocking on doors and showing up in their spaces to get clear on what they care about.
Eventually, they came across a PhD student who saw an opportunity to articulate Furniture Bank’s impact through carbon reduction metrics. As Dan explains, “If you aren’t destroying furniture, you save carbon through effective upkeep and re-use.”
Test new measurement approaches through prototyping
With this insight in hand, the team developed new metrics by way of hands-on measurement prototyping. First, they created visualization metrics to showcase what the organization collects and re-distributes. “We took 20 average sofas, 20 average coffee tables, 20 average everything we repurpose and created simple proxies for weight, height, and volume,” says Dan. From there, they connected with environmental experts to align on the core activities and outputs for its carbon offsets, including projected cost savings for landfill life extension.
The team’s work also yielded an unexpected internal metric that enabled the optimization of Furniture Bank’s trucking capacity. “You might imagine when you’re loading random pieces of furniture into trucks, it’s like playing 3D Tetris,” Dan explains. “And so we started to use the new volume calculator as a way of maximizing space. We did fail a number of times. We had some days where, on our model, we thought we had room and we didn’t, and that caused problems with donors.”
Yet, permission to fail is an integral part of the culture that Dan is cultivating at Furniture Bank. As the team continues to iterate on its measurement approach, it’s learning to adapt to problems more quickly, with end-to-end tests and adjustments often taking place in a one-week timeframe.
Try on different ways of communicating
At the front-end of Furniture Bank’s prototyping process is an ongoing exploration of different ways of communicating its impact. Here, Dan hones in on three key lessons – be concise, be flexible, and be prepared to try again. He aptly likens this work to stand-up comedy. Some days (or years!), your metrics and messaging hit home, while on many others you have to go back to the drawing board.
One such journey for Furniture Bank took place over a 6-year period in engaging with a provincial funding body, finally securing funding after several years of attempts. “That “ding ding ding ding!” moment,” as Dan puts it, “created real momentum. We had finally cracked the layer cake of talking about the various measurements and explaining how they relate. The employment benefits support the environmental benefits which in turn support the core charities. We’re always sort of flipping it around. And like most comedians, we keep reworking it until suddenly it clicks.”
Through this example, we see the power of patience and persistence in getting to know your target audience and learning to speak their language. Being strategic about which audiences warrant the closest attention is a crucial component of success.
Overall, Furniture Bank is an outlier in the charitable space because it is leveraging impact measurement as a gateway into continuous improvement and innovation. As Dan is quick to point out, “We don’t do the work primarily for fundraising. We do it because it helps us to be a better charity. It gives us a meaningful understanding of all of the scenarios and opportunities at play. It’s like tackling a Gordian knot – you pull one string intentionally and something else you didn’t expect to pull pulls.”
Are you interested in learning more about how to embed a practice of impact measurement in your organization? If so, check out Common Approach’s Common Foundations. They serve as a practical guide for social purpose organizations to ensure they’re engaging on solid ground.
This post was the second in a three-part series. The first looked at Furniture Bank’s early journey into impact measurement. Stay tuned for the final post in this series, where we’ll consider ways to build your impact measurement approach to enable sustainability at scale!
About Furniture Bank (Toronto)
Furniture Bank was founded in 1998 to help individuals and families in the Greater Toronto Area establish their homes. With its partner agencies, Furniture Bank provides furniture at no cost to people transitioning out of homelessness, women and children escaping abusive situations, and refugees and newcomers to Canada. It envisions a country where everyone has the stability and dignity of a furnished home.
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