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For organisations in all sectors that seek to make a difference to people’s lives – charities, social enterprises, funders, research bodies and public services – being able to measure and demonstrate impact can help them get better at what they do, and reach more people, more effectively.

Finding evidence that one’s work has reached its intended audiences and achieved its goals can be tricky. The pathway from publishing and disseminating a piece of research, to achieving awareness, acceptance and action is not always linear or direct. Instead, having influence and impact often happens indirectly, via a circuitous route with a fair few cul-de-sacs and some serendipitous connections.

Having impact often happens indirectly, via a fair few cul-de-sacs and some serendipitous connections

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has today published an evaluation of its education and poverty programme carried out by the RSA. The study aims not just to describe levels of awareness amongst key audiences, but also to assess how far particular messages and findings have had resonance with different parts of the audience, and as far as possible, to explain why this level of influence has been achieved.

One of the most interesting findings from the study relates to the difference between what we call ‘natural advocates’ and other more sceptical or disengaged parts of the audience. For any research report or think tank publication, there is likely to be a range of attitudes amongst the people it is trying to reach, some of whom are ready to hear the message – because it accords with their pre-existing views or helps them make the case for change – and others for whom the findings and messages are more challenging, or fit less well with their own beliefs and values.

In a purely rational world, presenting robust evidence and analysis would speak for itself; there would be no need to cultivate the art of advocacy and methods of persuasion. In the real world, full of more or less explicit assumptions and underpinning beliefs, there is a more complex job to do to convince and persuade less engaged or more sceptical parts of the audience.

In a purely rational world, we wouldn't need to cultivate the art of advocacy or methods of persuasion

We see this difference in the education and poverty evaluation: interviews with a range of stakeholders indicate that one of the headline messages of the JRF programme, challenging the myth of ‘low aspirations’ amongst low-income groups, and focusing on ‘keeping aspirations on track’ rather than ‘raising aspirations’ (which are not low to begin with), had real resonance with anti-poverty campaigners, especially at a time of austerity and heavy welfare cuts. Beyond these ‘natural advocates’, there was more resistance and scepticism about the message amongst other parts of the audience, including policy-makers and political advisers and some school leaders and teachers.

These findings speak to the long-term challenge of tackling poverty and disadvantage in the UK. As campaigners know, presenting facts and statistics does not capture people’s imagination or penetrate more deeply-held beliefs and assumptions about the drivers of poverty and low attainment. Even for those who are broadly sympathetic, opinion research shows that UK poverty needs to be shown in new ways to reflect changed realities and avoid ‘compassion fatigue’.

The ‘problem’ does not lie simply with the audience, of course. However much effort is invested in dissemination and communication, impact will ultimately depend on the distinctiveness of the research findings and clarity of the messages being conveyed – and above all, on the shifting contours of the policy and political landscape which affect how much scope there is for influencing at a particular moment in time.

Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of Education at the RSA.  The RSA's evaluation of the JRF Education and Poverty programme is published today.


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