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What is impact?

Working paper

Written by Simon Hearn, Anne Buffardi

Working paper

​It seems everyone is looking to achieve and demonstrate impact. Among development practitioners and agencies the terms ‘impact’ and ‘impact evaluation’ have skyrocketed in use and have become common parlance.

But are we all talking about the same thing? The way in which impact is framed has a significant influence on development processes and how programmes are designed, managed and evaluated. And there is too much ambiguity and confusion about what ‘impact’ is, how it should be defined, how to measure it and what kind of measurement is sufficient.

The purpose of this discussion paper is not to propose a single, universal definition of impact or to debate existing definitions. We aim to elevate the discussion about impact, moving beyond the methodological debates that have dominated attention paid to impact so far, and present different perspectives and dimensions that can affect how impact could be framed and evaluated.

Rather than arguing which of these perspectives is universally superior, we encourage development programmes to structure an explicit conversation about how different stakeholders conceive of and are using the term impact in order to come to a shared understanding.

Simon Hearn and Anne Buffardi