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Recognising impact orientation

How do you find particularly effective organisations? 

Donating effectively is more important today than ever before. Money is not distributed to charitable organisations according to the “watering can” principle, philanthropists take a closer look. Their aim is to use their assets to bring about far-reaching and measurable change in order to better tackle the existing challenges of our time and fulfil the needs of society more effectively. 

Foundations are at the forefront of this. Increasingly, they are asking specifically about the effectiveness of the beneficiary organisation before providing funding. Proven success in the past provides insights into the working methods of the supported organisation and suggest that impact can also be achieved in the future. 

 Verifying the actual effectiveness of measures is not always easy with more complex issues, and not every organisation can provide statistically reliable data on its impact. However, this does not mean that they are not effective. Good organisations can be recognised first and foremost by the fact that they focus their entire strategy and actions on specific impacts. This can be recognised by how the organisation proceeds – does it use tools and methods that support effective action?  

Environment and needs analysis for project planning

Projects are not created in a vacuum. Often there are already programmes and structures in place that have not yet produced the desired success, it is not always clear what is actually needed and by whom. 

For this reason, an impact-oriented organisation analyses its environment in advance. This gives it an overview of the needs, services and stakeholders that are relevant to the project. Is the purpose already being fulfilled or is there still a real need? Are there other organisations that are more competent or experienced? Are activities in competition with each other? For example, if an afternoon programme is offered for children, it may overlap with the school’s childcare provision. 

What collaborations are possible to improve the programme instead of expanding it? Are certain groups not being reached by the programme because the previously chosen approaches are not working for them? In this way, the organisation can make a well-founded decision as to whether it should offer an additional service, take on a more supportive role or change its planned project again in order to improve the service instead of expanding it. Are certain groups not being reached by the programme because the previously chosen approaches are not working for them? In this sense, the organisation can make a well-founded decision as to whether to offer an additional service, take on a more supportive role or change its planned project once again. 

An early analysis reduces the risk of a planned approach failing and alternatives having to be worked out. “Well meant, badly done” is a helpful practical guide from the Bertelsmann Foundation that shows ways out of difficult project funding situations.   

For the needs analysis, the target group is defined as precisely as possible. This includes which services the target group already uses and how best to reach them. Demographic data and surveys of target groups and stakeholders help with the analysis. As soon as the current problems and needs are better understood, help can be provided in an impact-orientated manner. 

There is often an important distinction between target groups: The primary target group is defined as those who should ultimately benefit from the project, for example school children. However, the organisation’s offer is often not aimed directly at the children but at parents, teachers or educators. These are then the direct target group of the programme, but are secondary from an impact perspective.  

Strategic tools for impact orientation  

Good organisations can precisely define the impact they want to achieve. On the one hand, they can describe for whom something should change – in the school example: the school management, the teachers, the social workers, the parents and/or the children. On the other hand, it is clear what exactly should change – for example, knowledge, attitude or specific behaviour. 

A helpful distinction here is between outcomes and impact. The outcome refers to the changes in the respective target groups, while the impact represents the desired social change. Typical outcomes are the improvement of knowledge and skills or a change in behaviour. The impact refers to the overarching social effect that the programme aims to achieve. This can be, for example, greater social justice or a greater focus on sustainability. 

Impact-oriented organisations consistently align their activities with the desired changes. To this end, they plan which activities are to be carried out (output) and which resources, such as working time or money, are required for this (input). 

The assumptions as to how the resources and activities should lead to the desired effects are often summarised in a so-called Theory of Change. This describes how the organisation intends to implement its objectives and strategic goals in practice. Based on a theory of change and the organisation’s specific activities, it is easy to assess how consistently the organisation is pursuing the impact orientation approach. 

Data-supported monitoring

The Theory of Change is the basis for meaningful project monitoring on several levels. The easiest to record are the resources used and the services provided (input and output). 

In order to record the effects at the various levels, it is necessary to find meaningful indicators that can be measured with reasonable effort. This usually allows outcomes to be determined approximately, for example through surveys or test results. The social impact can usually only be estimated or extrapolated from the measurable changes. 

Impact-oriented organisations can often be recognised by the fact that they have meaningful data on resources, activities and changes achieved. The data can be quantitative or qualitative in nature. In addition, the data is regularly evaluated, is transparently available internally and externally and is used to manage the organisation. 

Reflection and learning

Reflecting on one’s own work and systematic learning are further characteristics of particularly impact-oriented organisations. 

On the one hand, not only the operational details but also the fundamental approach are regularly scrutinised. The organisation’s own theory of change is constantly reviewed on the basis of data from monitoring, but also from observing the environment and taking stakeholder feedback into account. Are the assumptions still up to date? Have needs changed, have new offerings emerged, have assumptions about interdependencies proved to be correct? 

This can even mean that activities previously considered successful are abandoned in favour of a new approach and established programmes or projects are redesigned or terminated. For example, the focus may shift from direct services for the primary target group to work with multipliers if this is considered more efficient. The decisive factor in assessing the organisation is how it justifies this change in strategy and how it arrived at its findings. 

Impact-oriented organisations also have a particular awareness of the importance of knowledge management and transfer within their own team. They create spaces and times for reflection, training and coaching and devote sufficient attention to team development. 

Transparent communication with partners and sponsors is very important in order to jointly develop strategies, make risk decisions and take bold steps together. 

In particular, good organisations have a pragmatic approach to setbacks. Not all activities can be successful, and not every failure is a learning experience. Social change cannot be planned like production processes; sometimes it takes a favourable constellation and a bit of luck. Impact-oriented organisations are not discouraged by this – and neither are open-minded sponsors. 

Impact-orientation in complex systems

Organisations that strive for change in complex systems are often unable to demonstrate direct links between their activities and the observed changes. In the context of joint initiatives, for example in a collective impact approach, several actors make important contributions which, taken together, achieve a change for the better. 

In such a setting, the clarity and transparency of the organisations’ mission and strategy, and their ability to react to changes and learn from them, are particularly important. 


Impact orientation in beneficiary organisations is demonstrated by a holistic approach. The organisations analyse the needs of their target group as well as their environment. The use of strategic tools and methods in combination with monitoring rounds off the approach. This combination enables organisations to maximise their impact and have a long-term positive influence on their target group and society as a whole. 

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