Maximum impact

September 27, 2011 by
Filed under: The RSA 

Often an issue engages us because over a short period of time it has come up from different angles in different contexts. For me themost recent example concerns the way the RSA describes social impact. The issue cropped up at a recent Trustee meeting in relation to different views about how we should judge the success for RSA projects. For some Trustees the most important thing is impact on the ground, others would like to see evidence that we are influencing policy makers and breaking through more consistently into the national media.

Then, on Friday, we had an internal meeting involving senior managers where there was discussion of a paper proposing the development of single corporate framework for assessing impact. Finally, on Saturday in Todmorden I saw a great example of the RSA making an impact – in this case supporting a fantastic initiative which has built great social capital in town – but also one which it is quite hard to capture as a conventional output.

So I feel these questions need further thought and having such great readers – who are generally enthusiastic about the RSA – I thought that over the next few days I might share some of my thought processes with you.

Last year the RSA Trustees agreed to launch a new strapline: twenty first century enlightenment. The feeling was that this worked at several levels. It combines a reference to our eighteenth century enlightenment origins with a commitment to be relevant in the century ahead. It refers to our mission to open up new ideas to the world. But the strap line also referred to a more substantive conversation about the Society’s modern mission which had been taking place among Trustees and in other RSA forums. 

Twenty first century enlightenment means different things to different people, but I gave my personal take on it in my 2010 annual lecture. In essence this was an argument of three parts:

1) For the world to meet major challenges and to flourish in the 21st century we need a step change in human capability, including significant changes in the ways we think and behave: in short we need citizens who are more engaged, more resourceful and more inclined to be pro-social.

2) If we seek to enhance human capability we need to understand what drives human behaviour. From disciplines as varied as neuroscience, behavioural economics, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology new, more complex and more nuanced accounts of human nature are emerging to challenge the formerly dominant myth of homo economicus.

3) Putting together the challenges generated by the modern world with new thinking about human behaviour provides an opportunity to reconsider the way we have come to interpret some of the founding ideas of the post enlightenment era; namely autonomy, universalism and humanism.

As I say, this is just my take but it helps to explain why measuring impact is a tricky problem. The relationship between our mission and what we do is reasonably clear, the difficulty comes when we move from what we do (output) to what we want to achieve (outcome).

The thirty five million on-line views of RSA events proves we are making ideas interesting and accessible to a mass audience. But apart from the many positive comments on YouTube and other places how do we know that those ideas are having an impact beyond entertainment? And should we more ambitious about using the events programme to surface new issues in ways which really have an impact on public discourse?

Our projects in areas ranging from design and education to social networks and behaviour change all relate to questions of human capability. We can point to good publications, rising media profile and concrete real world impacts such as our Whole Person Recovery work in Sussex or the achievements of our Academies, but if we wanted to aim for a more profound long-lasting influence and change what would it be and in what areas would we focus?       

As my day in Todmorden vividly showed, our investment in supporting Fellows’ activities is starting to pay off in an ever growing level of Fellowship activity (as another example, last week saw over 150 people attend a Profit with Purpose network meeting here in London). But can we aspire to all these disparate initiatives coalescing into the RSA Fellowship making a substantial contribution to civil society?

In focussing on outcomes rather than more easily measured outputs there is a danger that the discussion becomes rather abstract and speculative. But I also think that part of the RSA being a truly innovative organisation could be that we try to judge ourselves by distinctive criteria, developing new metrics and making new kinds of arguments about impact. One possibility, for example, might be that we use the forthcoming Fellowship survey to ask some deeper questions about how being a Fellow changes people’s sense of social efficacy and responsibility. Social network analysis (an area in which the RSA is now seen to be a leading practitioner) might also enable us to see how our work ripples out beyond our immediate stakeholder groups. 

I hope to return to these issues later in the week and – as always – I’ll be interested to see of readers have their own perspectives.



  • Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)

    I just wanted to link Matthew’s blog to this excellent blog from Jeremy Nicholls at the SROI Network –

  • Jonathanrowson

    A good overview of our challenges.

    Part of the problem might lie with the idea that ‘impact’ can ever be measured at a particular point in time. One way to break up impact is something like the following(adapted from

    Reach: who knows what you are doing?
    Engagement: who is responding to what you are doing ?
    Involvement: who or what is changing as a result of what you are doing ?
    Societal transformation: are these changes enduring and spreading as a result…?

    From this perspective the RSA can certainly point to some success in each domain. However, measurement gets harder as you move down the list. Given that RSA’s ‘impact’ will always be constrained and complicated by millions of factors, perhaps we can only realistically judge our success on the basis of the first two, and be content to theorise, more or less plausibly, on how that impact might influence the last two.

  • ahmed

    I’m still reeling from having missed out on the bottle of wine, but I’ll get over it, possibly by Spring. It helps that the bottle of wine from the personal selection was in actual fact a voucher, and I was a bit distracted with work to give the task more thought.

    The umbrella of the RSA should be a pedestal for its members. It should provide the tools and potential ways forward (the many guests, some of which I have seen at the RSA, have been invaluable to my work, or perhaps I was just brainwashed).

    The RSA should then see the impact of this work by giving members a platform, alongside the variety of people and thinkers brought in to the RSA, from which to show and tell what they do and how the RSA has helped.

    Having an FRSA designation should mean something to people that are not members of the RSA. That is the ultimate measure of maximum impact.

    Engaging with members, giving them a louder voice then they would otherwise have and allowing them and others to prosper (creatively, intellectually, financially, etc) because of their decision to join, this will encourage members to spread the RSA word, or should that be acronym, beyond the typical boundaries.

  • Benedict Rickey


    Measuring the impact of the RSA, an interesting conundrum indeed. As I’m sure you’re aware, the RSA is not the first organisation to mull over how to unpick to what extent its helped others create impact. This is a key concern of social enterprise capacity builders like Unltd and the School for Social Enterpreneurs.

    In an evaluation published earlier this year, NPC made one of the (if not the) first attempt at attributing the impacts of a second tier organisation – through people and organisations they’ve supported – on communities across the UK. The approach was not perfect, and will hopefully be refined by others in future; but we think it pushes forward thinking about what can and can’t be measured by ‘second tier’ organisations. The approach taken may provide some useful pointers for how the RSA could measure it’s social impact.

    The evaluation can be found here: ttp://

    We would be more than happy to discuss this in more detail – feel free to get in touch.

    Kind regards,


    [email protected]

  • Benedict Rickey

    p.s: For those of you who don’t have an NPC log in the evaluation can also be found on the School for Social Entrepreneurs’ web-site:

  • Hilary Sutcliffe

    Shouldn’t the desired impact be designed into the process from the start? I appreciate that it is easier said than done, and that many projects may be suck it and see type things, but really post event impact is never as effective as that which is decided in advance, designed into the project and measured on an ongoing basis.

    In addition, multiple impacts with multiple stakeholders is also possible and often desirable. The projects should be created to support the goals of the RSA and the aspirations which stem from its vision and values and ‘tick’ a number of boxes and therefore support different impacts for different audiences.

    I am afraid I am not close to the strategy which underpins 21c Enlightenment theme, (which to be honest is a bit wafty for me!) and I am sure you have this, but those phrases you show in your blog seem to be a mix of aspiration statements and rather woolly phrases which make it difficult to know what you are about and intend to do about the problems you sketch out. But it may be there is a detailed plan underneath that which I haven’t looked at.

    I’m afraid to say I can’t agree with Ahmed, please don’t make the RSA a platform for its members only. I am sure that members have great ideas and can be the catalyst and support for many projects as well as being an integral part of strategy and project development. But to make it about its members isn’t 21c englightenment, it’s a sort of glorified consultancy!

    I think you got me on a particularly arsy day!

  • matthew taylor

    Thanks for these comments folks. Thanks for the link Garry. Benedict, I’ve downloaded the SSE report. Really useful. Hilary and Ahmed the answer is for us to combine an emphasis on Fellows being part of our charitable mission along with greater integration between our R and D activities and our Fellowship outreach. I will have another go at some of these issues in the next day or so