As part of the 2022 NCACE Festival of Cultural Knowledge Exchange, we had the chance to facilitate a workshop defining and refining non-financial impact in collaborative cultural projects. Our intention was to use the workshop as a way of collectively collating a list of non-financial cultural knowledge exchange activities and forms of impact and evaluation. Conversation in the session was rich and wide-ranging, relating to systemic challenges in cultural funding, distinctions between aspirational and traceable impact, and modes of evaluation which measure what matters within and between cultural projects. But despite an insightful set of discussions during the event, we didn’t quite centre in on our intended focus in terms of mapping forms of non-financial impact. On reflection, we have come to wonder if this might be partly symptomatic of the issue of non-financial cultural impact itself!
Within the cultural industries, many of us work on projects which incorporate - and often pivot around - non-financial impact. Many of us are deeply engaged with the nuances of social value within our work and motivated in fundamental and complex ways by questions associated with the cultural significance of our practice. However, social and cultural forms of impact can feel at once extremely broad and almost prohibitively specific to the projects we are working on. As a result, knowing where to start with categorisation, particularly when starting from a blank canvas, can feel like a challenge.
Furthermore, non-financial impact can feel difficult to articulate in a way which seems ‘enough’. Faced with the requirement to express in stark terms the social or cultural impact we are making with our practice, it can feel as though our personal, creative or critical aspirations somehow don’t match up to funder or policy requirements or can’t be qualified in sufficiently clear-cut terms as to be provable unequivocally. Partly, an understanding of the multifaceted and intersectional complexity of cultural work can itself be an obstacle to grand claims surrounding the lasting significance of an intervention. Indeed, we might argue that the expectation that artistic or cultural interventions can be summed up in bald terms demonstrates a mismatch in the very framework of evaluation we are using.
Categorising Non-Financial Impact
As stated, non-financial impact is often at the core of cultural projects but approaching a meaningful categorisation of its myriad forms can prove daunting, particularly when seeking to do so in ways that address the need to justify one’s project. In the NCACE workshop, we sought to introduce Nature’s Way - a recently completed AHRC-funded research project at the Royal College of Art - to provide a concrete start point to enter these discussions, knowing participants would also bring their wealth of experience to the table. As a way to supplement findings from the workshop and hone in on some of our intended categories of non-financial impact, we offer a particular insight into three forms of non-financial impact and how they played out in this particular project.
Nature’s Way investigated small-scale community-led nature-based projects with some level of focus on wellbeing, and particularly within the context of COVID-19. As well as a national focus, Nature’s Way took particular interest in projects operating within Walsall and Bradford. We weren’t evaluating the extent to which nature-based activities benefit mental health but instead our work aimed to create a deep understanding of the realities, context, impact and complexities of these types of projects, the knowledge they have and need, their ambitions and focus, and the challenges and opportunities they are constantly navigating. We also hoped to empower people and groups to start nature-based projects, to promote their projects, and to help develop connections and knowledge sharing among existing projects, both at the local level and further through an online platform. Now we turn to reflect on some of the forms of non-financial impact flowing from the project.
Central to Nature’s Way was our ambition to comprehensively map the systems community-led nature-based projects operate within and how these systems are navigated. It was imperative that insights were directly drawn from those working ‘on the ground’ to maximise validity and relevance. As such, we conducted numerous interviews and site visits, attended and led workshops and seminars, and maintained close engagement with key projects over an extended period. Ultimately, we created a number of short films focusing on some of our local partner projects. Many of the individuals featured operate with minimal recognition or funding. The combination of seeing themselves presented on the screen and their work celebrated, along with the extended engagement and interest in their work and the challenges they face, generated a sense of validation, confidence and recognition. One can only assume that being taken seriously and listened to then helped move projects forward - and this gets to the heart of the issue, that often one must assume but cannot necessarily predict or confirm the varied impacts of cultural projects.
Cultural and artistic projects, and the social and cultural impact they point towards, rarely operate in clear-cut, time-limited isolation. Rather, projects function within a complex cultural landscape, impacting participants and audience members in individual ways as part of their broader lived experience, and contributing to social and cultural change over time, strung between various elements of the contemporary mediascape. Even short-term demonstrable ‘impact’ related to the direct experience of a group to a cultural intervention can only be gathered as a partial measure, which will be further shaped from the point of evaluation onwards. From that initial point of evaluation, certain audience members or participants may have lasting behavioural or attitudinal shifts, or may not, as a result of multiple factors. This also presents an issue for some forms of evaluation, which might favour broad impact across a group of people over deeper, more singular forms of impact to individuals over time.
In the case of Nature’s Way, the founder of one community garden featured in the short films met with a design researcher fortnightly to create an in-depth user journey map in real time, as a means to thoroughly understand the processes, emotions and challenges involved in setting up similar projects. The founder reported that the process made her feel validated and improved her confidence and desire to keep going. Additionally, it reportedly helped her focus, enhanced her sense of purpose, and made her more ambitious. This mapping exercise was going to be developed into an in-depth case study but as the project shifted, this was abandoned. While we know this engagement had significant impact, this type of impact can get lost because it doesn’t end in a clean way or have a neat way of being transformed into clear data relating to impact.
It requires significant resources to do work which aims to make a difference and has a significant impact on one person’s life. It can be challenging to invest further resources into transforming that experience into a case study or testimony that can be disseminated further so more people can benefit. This is a more bottom-up approach rather than trying to fit into something pre-determined in a top-down way: our work in itself produces impact, but how do we convey this? We don’t want to impoverish the work we’re doing or represent it in ways that don't highlight its richness. One workshop participant suggested a move away even from the terms ‘impact’ and ‘measurement’, as they emanate from a different disciplinary background, and instead employ words such as ‘influence’ and ‘effect’; reflecting that evaluation should be a verb, not a noun.
After initially expecting to use design tools, processes and expertise to support the development of new nature-based interventions, it became clear that the people running these projects had all the knowledge, passion, creativity and initiative to do this themselves, and the most effective way we could intervene - in our position as a small-scale research project - was to aid people to navigate the systems surrounding their projects, to promote their work, to support greater connectivity and knowledge-sharing, and to inspire others.
The 11 films we made were launched at public screening events in both locations that were also networking events to kickstart enhanced connectivity between local partners and other stakeholders. Through knowledge sharing and collaboration, individual projects are likely to be strengthened, thereby enhancing the impact they each have in the communities they serve. Two participants (both featured in the films) met for the first time at their local event and have now launched a joint nature-based project initiative i.e. something tangible emanating from our research project.
Surveys sent following the screening events received minimal responses; given we were made aware anecdotally of participants’ genuine interest, the lack of response may be due to the multiple responsibilities competing for their time. Borrowing from social science disciplines could be helpful here (e.g. setting up expectations that feedback will requested at various points) but it’s a balance: we don’t want to record in ways that aren’t appropriate to the arts, but we do want to take account of participant insight and feedback to understand the value of these projects, and to improve processes for future projects. Not receiving such feedback causes problems for justifying the value of these projects – including a lack of evidence or evidence skewed in the favour of the small sample that does respond.
We carried out in-person engagement activities at the screening events, but people just wanted to use the time to talk to each other. This is the impact of the project – it’s happening but the standard tools for capturing aren’t reaching to the heart of it e.g. surveys, numbers of attendees. We tried to counteract this difficulty by filming the events themselves, to try and capture what we did, so when we say there was a buzz and people connected, we have evidence. But we need to assemble different approaches to best represent the project. Narrative evaluations get to the richness of a project’s impact but can be hard to generalise from this – though human stories can be effective ways of communicating the issues to funders and policymakers, so they potentially have an important role to play here in their own right.
It’s only through a combination of approaches that a more holistic view of the impact of cultural projects emerges – both the short- and long-term impact as well as the clear and more nebulous elements, and how all of these intersect. There’s a need to find ways of capturing this impact that’s appropriate to a project, and creative methods can provide an enriching supplement.
We spent a year talking to and visiting nature-based, community-led projects in Walsall and Bradford, and as stated, from what we learned, it was determined that a productive means of intervening was to create short promotional films that also acted as a means of sharing expertise. The films are free for the projects to use themselves for their own purposes. They could additionally be mobilised for greater knowledge sharing and as a method through which organisations may then promote themselves, such as for funding applications and as evidence for local authorities, thereby promoting the wellbeing benefits of NbS to decision makers and perhaps supporting the sustainability of such projects. However, as the project is ending, we will not be able to determine whether or not the films are used or useful, we can only hope that the work we have done will be beneficial based on the processes that were undertaken in advance to determine what would be a potentially impactful, desirable, possible and useful intervention for this project. What we do know, however, is that representatives from both the local council and health service attended the screening events. As such, and through our interviews and workshops, we assisted in putting these projects on the agenda for local decision makers, therefore potentially impacting policy. Again, we return to the reality of claiming ‘pathways to impact’ rather than ‘impact’ unless we are able to follow up. How can we find ways of returning to projects after a certain time elapsed; should funders provide a small allowance extra for this? The benefits could be shared among projects: more would be learned about the impact of initiatives and this knowledge disseminated.
The process of this project – research, interventions, impact, evaluation – was not necessarily linear. Partnerships form, trust builds, opportunities arise - but a big part of our role was to facilitate this by creating opportunity spaces where that can happen. Design, as a discipline and practice, is user- or human-centred, and is focused on co-creating solutions. As such, it’s an iterative process – of understanding what’s needed and what’s possible - and the exact intervention and/or impact can’t necessarily be predicted at the start of the process, meaning it’s challenging to specify this in research projects and plan accordingly.
To illustrate this, one of the project partners, The MindKind Projects, a mental health organisation in Walsall, increased their nature-based activities as a result of their participation and were able to utilise the design thinking tools from the project to run consultations with local stakeholders and residents. Their status as project partner elevated their profile locally, giving them a stronger platform for their work. As part of this, they galvanised support to pilot a local social prescribing platform. Their evolving green prescribing work also received support, and they secured a contract with the local council to form a community nature-based project on a local public green space. They have also been able to employ residents as health champions, create new volunteer roles and put money back into the local economy. There is a financial element to this, but it’s really about the sustainability of projects to deliver benefits to the community, and to broaden their scope and impact; something we set out to achieve and were very proud to have played a small role in making happen. Again, it was not something we could have predicted - particularly as this organisation weren’t originally involved as partners at all - and things evolved including things outside of our control e.g. Walsall Council’s interests. It was, therefore, not something that could have been considered at the project formulation stage, and demonstrates the need to balance flexibility with planning, and to ensure that both desired and unexpected impacts are recorded, and that knowledge is taken forward to benefit both projects initiated by those team members and others working in the field.
As demonstrated by findings from Nature’s Way, the shape of non-financial impact might be deep rather than broad, networked rather than linear, long term instead of short-term and strung between projects rather than isolated in individual interventions. Outputs from projects might be visible in the increased confidence of participants in the work they already undertake, in the building of strong, sustainable foundations within a community for mutual benefit, or in the increased visibility of work to funders and policymakers; all of which can lead to the development of a movement for change over time in multifaceted and connected ways.
The definition of non-financial impact in cultural and creative projects can feel evasive and finding time and space for reflection can help us lean into the nuances and specificity of social and cultural value. Certainly, we have found that candid, collaborative reflection can help accelerate our understanding of cultural practice, enabling us to comprehend and articulate more clearly the ends we are working to and helping us hone our methodologies accordingly.
As a way to extend this opportunity, we have put together a Padlet as an opportunity to continue the conversation, documenting forms of non-financial impact from cultural and creative work, including methods of evaluation used to capture non-financial impact and challenges associated with this.
Please do access the Padlet here and add any thoughts you might have in relation to the theme of non-financial impact. When creating your entry, we would recommend giving a brief one-line overview of a project you’ve been involved with, and then a description of the social or cultural value of that work. Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem ‘enough’, ‘clear’ or easy to describe. Leaning into elements of our work which are less easy to articulate may lead to new ideas and expressions of cultural value.