The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Blog: The power of storytelling to understand 'impact'

May 2019

It’s no secret, ‘impact’ can be a polarising word within the academic community. Often seen as an arbitrary measure that forces researchers to look for impact in overly simple and restrictive ways, the true impact of research can be overlooked or missed. Through the Impact Initiative, we have embraced the complexity and nuances of research funded by the ESRC-DFID Strategic Partnership, and searched for stories to highlight the true nature of their impact, rather than simplify it.

At the launch of the Your World Research findings – a project focusing on marginalised young people’s living rights in fragile and conflict affected situations enabled by the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research -  I was lucky enough to be part of a roundtable and to wax lyrical [to converse about a subject in an enthusiastic manner], but I was not the only one. It was a delight to hear the project teams from Ethiopia and Nepal share their fascinating findings. Especially in the context of Ethiopia, where the political context is moving particularly fast at the moment, the researchers and young people involved in the project were in a position to engage the new government on the development of their National Youth Policy with their emerging findings. If that’s not impact, then I’m not sure what is.

Through working with projects like the Your World Research, the Impact Initiative has been in a unique position to have an overview of the diverse portfolio of the grants, and really dig deep into how change happens.

Telling complex stories of impact

As part of our remit to connect policy makers and practitioners with the cutting-edge research supported by the ESRC-DFID Strategic Partnership, we have been creating various outputs, in particular impact stories. It is through those multiple and diverse impact stories that we have been able to demonstrate in parallel the shared and different ways to achieve impact at both community and global levels (and somewhere in between too).

In the process of creating these stories, we’ve been very clear about the fact that the language and art of ‘impact’ is highly complex and shaped by widely differing contexts – we supported and provided a clear framework of what impact could look like, but not what it has to look like.

A caveat: while we were committed to not oversimplifying, we did not want to overstate, or understate, so all the impact stories include an example and/or evidence showing how the impact stated in the story can be backed up. Types of examples included: survey evidence where beneficiaries have benefited; reference to research in a policy document or commitment to further funding. You’d be surprised - in all cases, there was a clear example.

Essentially, as a guide we worked from and built on the ESRC three types of impact:

  • Capacity building - Building capacity of researchers and intermediaries to strengthen research uptake approaches
  • Conceptual - Changing ways of thinking, raising awareness and contributions to knowledge
  • Instrumental - Impacts on policy and practice – a change in direction attributable to research

In addition, it is through the last four years of the Impact Initiative that we have been lucky enough to hear and bring together diverse groups to profile and support the uptake of the research. The conversation that comes up time and time again, was the importance of relationships. So, we have added another type of impact to the list: 

  • Networks and connectivity - Building and strengthening networks, connecting up the supply of evidence with the demand for it.

Ultimately, we fully acknowledge that evidence comes in many forms, and impact can appear in so many ways, but we don’t think this should deter us from trying to articulate and understand it.

Making the "Delta of Impact"

The ‘Power of Partnership: Research to Alleviate Poverty’ conference in December, which focused on the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research as it approaches its final phase, was a great opportunity to bring together over 100 researchers with policy actors and practitioners, to look at how the evidence coheres around key policy issues and the role of partnerships in achieving impact. 

We developed an iterative process to identify the different outcomes and processes to impact shared within the panel presentations, and mapped how different grants provided examples linked to each outcome area. This exercise has demonstrated the vast range of strategies that grant holders used to engage with users of research. Either from the community level (to empower communities and build awareness of rights and skills to participate in and influence research and policy processes), or work with donors, ministries and multilateral agencies (to influence the policy discourse and ultimately impact upon policies and livelihoods).

This activity highlighted the critical importance of convening multi-stakeholder platforms and dialogues as a key process to validate, build ownership and promote uptake of research findings. This data provides a new perspective (report forthcoming!) to segment the portfolio around processes, rather than thematic focus, and has potential to build our understanding of how impact is achieved across a large research portfolio and to support researchers to better articulate their impact pathways in future work.

From convening spaces for knowledge exchange to sharing stories of influence and change, there is no doubt strong partnerships and relationships play a fundamental role in achieving meaningful impact whatever the context.

Related resources and blogs to read/download:


The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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