What your Grandmother knows about Impact

Grandmother's house

A little weekend trip to visit your grandmother can elucidate for you what befuddles innumerable organizations:  the difference between milestones, metrics, and impacts.  

Understanding the difference, to put it bluntly, separates those of us who make impact our daily practice from those of us who just like to talk about it.

In our work with dozens of organizations on hundreds of projects, the conflation of these three elements–milestones, metrics, and impact–has emerged as a common source of trouble.  Trouble within (with staff, board, volunteers), trouble without (with donors, beneficiaries, the public).

Thinking about a weekend trip to Grandma’s house can help clear things up.  Don’t doubt it — visiting Grandma is a project: you’re doing it for a reason; it will require you to perform a few tasks, like driving; and you’d better be ready to cite some evidence about how it went when your mom grills you later.


Let’s ask three questions:

1 – Why are you going to visit Grandma?  It might be to make her happy.  Perhaps it’s to make yourself feel less guilty for not visiting last year.  Maybe it’s just because she does your laundry.

Whatever your answer, that reason is the impact you are seeking.  Let’s say it’s to make her happy.  A very worthy intended impact.

2 – What needs to happen for this visit to become a reality?  Well, you should probably clean your car, just in case she needs to run some errands with you; you don’t want to be embarrassed.  Speaking of the car, it needs gas for the trip.  And the trip.  Hmmm, if you don’t leave by 3pm on Friday, you won’t make it past Roanoke before dark, meaning you’ll have no chance of arriving before her bedtime.

These are the milestones of your “visit Grandma” project.  Undoubtedly there are others, like needing to leave her house by 4pm Sunday so you can get home, pour yourself a glass of wine and exhale for at least a couple hours before bed.

3 – Now, at the end of this little project, how will you know that you have achieved your intended impact–a happy Grandma?  Maybe you don’t know your Grandma all that well.  If that’s the case, then you’ll have to think of some pretty rudimentary ways of determining her happiness.  It’ll be like a pilot project, because you’ll stick to some basic measurements:  Did she say she was happy to see you when she opened the door? (yes/no);  How many times did she pull out the photo albums during the first 24 hours?  Did she bake cookies for your trip back home?

These are metrics, albeit very basic ones.  Some of us know our grandmothers a lot better than that, so our metrics will be more meaningful:  During the last six hours of your visit, how many times did she try to convince you to stay an extra day?  What was the ratio of times she mentioned your over-achieving little sister to the number of times she complimented your recent promotion?

Okay, you get it.  Easy, right?  Well… not so fast.  If mission-driven organizations could achieve the same level of clear thinking that you just applied to your weekend with Grandma, it might put Schaffer & Combs out of business.  But for some reason–and we’re all guilty of this at one time or another–people get all turned around and upside down when trying to think about impact, metrics and milestones.


Let’s try those three questions once again, this time with the types of answers we see everyday in the world of humanitarian work, social projects, and philanthropy:

1 – Why are you going to visit Grandma?   So she’ll ask us to stay longer at least three times.   Oops, that’s not the impact, is it? Sounds more like a metric.  Sort of like when your project is about clean water in the developing world, but you can’t stop talking about the number of wells you’ve drilled.

2 – What needs to happen for this visit to become a reality?  Well, obviously, she needs to be happy for this to be a reality.  Nope, that’s your impact.  The question is about milestones.  Sort of like when your tactical plan harps on the elimination of waterborne disease, instead of the tasks that need to be achieved between now and then in order to deliver some clean water to people who don’t have it.

3 – How will we know that Grandma’s happy?  I’ll be there before her bedtime!  Not really.  That’s a milestone.  You need a metric to determine whether that fact has any demonstrable effect on her happiness.  Sort of like when you’re trying to prove that people who previously had no access to clean water have it reliably now, but you keep talking about how well drilling was finished on time(!).

You can learn a lot about your project and your organization just by taking a trip to visit your grandmother.  A clear understanding of the relationship between metrics, milestones, and impact will help you prove that the work you’re doing is worth supporting, and that is a quite valuable thing nowadays–for supporters, stakeholders, and beneficiaries.  And for you.

(Plus, your grandmother would love to see you.  Now you have another reason to visit her.)



One response to “What your Grandmother knows about Impact

  1. Thank you for this fun and informative explanation. Your breakdown of the three areas, made them alot clearer for me; keep up the good work!

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