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Nonprofits and Foundations Evaluation TIG Week: Using Metaphors to Communicate Impact in the Social Sector by Valerie A. Futch Ehrlich

Hello! I am Valerie Ehrlich, Director of Societal Impact’s evaluation team at the Center for Creative Leadership. We work to demonstrate impact and learn about leadership through social sector leadership development program evaluation.

Metaphors are a functional part of language that help us “carry meaning across from one thing to another.” This can be especially useful in instances where you are trying to communicate the impact of complex social programs. In our work evaluating leadership development programs in social sector programs, we often need to convey impact to a variety of audiences, show incremental impact occurring within the arc of a longer engagement, or help audiences make sense of what happens for people once they leave the program that makes their learning applicable.

We’ve used the following 5 metaphors to help understand, explore, and communicate the impact of our programs:

  • Scope and Scale: These stories talk about program reach and replication. This metaphor is useful when trying to demonstrate volume, saturation, or critical mass within a system or organization.
  • Ripples: Already a common metaphor in evaluation (see ripple-effect mapping), ripples evoke concentric circles which help us understand how learning for an individual at the center can influence those they are connected with.
  • Highways: Highways can connote acceleration and efficiency as well as shifting lanes to speed up or slow down. We have used this to explain learning transfer and the ability to put new skills into practice in faster ways or in different settings (i.e., lanes).
  • Cascades: Cascades evoke movement, transformation, and interdependence. They may take some of the earlier concepts and show how they are connected (for example, consider the number of ripples constantly happening within a cascading waterfall).
  • Constellations: We have used this metaphor to help audiences quite literally ‘connect the dots’ to see how different programs connect to show us a bigger picture. Some of the ‘stars’ may shine brighter or be closer or further away (newer or older programs) but they combine to create a larger image of impact.

Hot Tips:

  • Storytelling with metaphors can help audiences understand impact in complex systems where outcomes are more difficult to measure by drawing on familiar relationships and imagery.
  • Impact metaphors help audiences internalize, make sense of, and remember the impact stories they hear. This is particularly helpful for board members or funders, who may not be as close to the work, to grasp the essence of how change is occurring.

Lessons Learned:

  • Using metaphors helps people focus on “how” changes are happening in a setting or through a program. This gets them into a learning mindset and can help deepen dialogues around impact and improvement.
  • Metaphors can also point to methods – by identifying the type of relationship you think exists through a storytelling metaphor, you can identify where there might be gaps in your data or understanding and what you might want to focus on next to understand the relationship more deeply.
  • Metaphors can help inform program design. We found that impact metaphors help us break down the implicit relationships (i.e. the arrows in a logic model) into explicit component parts (i.e. if we’re talking about a “highway”—what are the lanes, the vehicles, the road conditions, how do people navigate the highways, etc.), which helps us more fully consider the pathways or generate new ideas for designs that could help us move from input to outcome.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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