Evaluating Event Impact

Uncategorized Jun 27, 2024

I’m often asked by sponsors, partners, event owners, and hosts what the overall impacts of an event and its sustainability efforts are, and I’m sure you are, too. This is needed to justify their support and investments and assure and satisfy themselves that their money is having the impact they anticipate, and rightly so. 

And so, I’m currently preparing a new mini-course over at Institute for Sustainable Events, and a new chapter in the upcoming fourth edition of my book Sustainable Event Management: A Practical Guide, dedicated to this important topic. Here, I’ll step you through the various types, dimensions, categories, indicators and techniques for impact assessment and evaluation.

This will help sort out your approach to assessing your event’s impact in an effective and relevant way. We’ll identify common dimensions and indicators that all events should report to, and how to select the most appropriate additional impact indicators.

Is the Triple Bottom Line the Real Bottom Line?

Event impact evaluation often stops at outputs - rather than the effects or outcomes, and their ultimate impacts. 

The typical triad of sustainability pillars of Economic // Social // Environment don’t quite give us what we need. In fact the triple bottom line approach to evaluation has been so corrupted that the conceiver, John Elkington (1994) has issued a recall on the concept. Read more on that!

We need to leap over the TBL and ask ourselves why. Why do we want economic contribution into our destination via the event? Why do we want good recycling or renewable energy rates? Why do we want diverse groups of people and individuals involved? By digging into the why, we can unearth the true potential impacts that we are ultimately hoping to have. 

And so, for me, it comes down to taking the triple bottom line a step deeper. 

What is the ultimate reason we want a positive economic, social, environmental bottom line? It is so we can have individual and communal Quality of Life and Well-Being and to uphold the Intrinsic Value of Nature. 

I am currently finalising a model that draws on the long history of impact evaluation concepts from the seminal article by Ritchie in 1984 and the first evaluation seen in events that included non-financial evaluation for the 1985 Adelaide Grand Prix by Burns et al. in 1986, through the credible efforts of industry and academia over the years, right up to the most recently published indicator frameworks by OECD and ASOIF.

The most significant updates to impact evaluation I am proposing are: 

  • A modernised set of dimensions we can all frame our impact indicators within the (new and expanded) sustainability pillars
  • Adding an overlay of the OECD Well-being Framework and SDGs
  • Providing a decision filter tool to help select and justify indicators

Hold on. The OECD Well-Being Framework?

Yes! I think this gives us the ultimate set of impacts on people and communities and breathes new life into impact evaluation. 

It gives us the people-based end result of the SDGs. If the SDGs (goals and targets) are met - what are the outcomes and impacts? We can drill it down to communal and individual quality of life and well-being, alongside recognising the intrinsic value of nature.

As a taste tester for your future event impact evaluation, imagine drawing a line between what your event’s effects are on people and community with these factors:

Is It Realistic to Think We Can Measure Impact?

Measuring impact and proving causality can be challenging, especially when the outcomes are intangible, socio-cultural, and long-term. 

Adding to the difficulty may be unrealistic (and possibly ill-informed) requirements for impact reporting by funding bodies, government, sponsors or higher authorities such as rights holders or governing bodies. 

This feeling of unreasonable expectations by those requesting impact reports is echoed in academic literature:

The issue for event organisers is that their (primarily government) funding sources want a globally applicable evaluation method that ‘works’ regardless of the context in which the event takes place. Researchers have struggled to find such a model that encompasses the broad range of event genres, scales and objectives. It is an entirely unrealistic expectation of what can be measured and, indeed, understood. (Nordvall and Brown, 2020)

The Way Forward

The good news is that industry and academia have come out the other side of trying to produce a one one-size-fits-all evaluation model. Models with a prescriptive list of impact indicators limit the possible discovery of previously un-thought-of impacts.

The challenge, though, will always be to create an evaluation framework or toolkit that is simple enough to be used by busy professionals and flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of event contexts, stakeholder interests, and anticipated (or unanticipated) impacts. 

The approach can't be too resource-intensive, take too much time, or be too expensive. Conversely, rigour and comparability are needed for credible evaluation. 

We need to use agreed common dimensions and some common indicators for all events, or all events in a certain category or sector. Certain types of events, sub-sectors, or local regions should produce programmes that reflect common indicators, enabling comparability. However seeking to create one model that suits all events, of all types and motivations, everywhere in the world, is a folly. 

I believe that complex models should remain in the realm of high-value events (mega, public stakeholder, high budget) and within academic and industry enquiry to advance the field. 

For smaller resource-constrained events (time, competency, money, people), robust but less complex approaches should be used. These could be programmes developed by industry groups, government, ESG measurement tools, or bespoke solutions developed from published basic frameworks adapted by in-house sustainability managers or external sustainability support. 

And so I remind you not to follow measurement and evaluation models verbatim. Whichever indicators are chosen, the information or data must be available and measurable, understandable, relevant or important, and offer comparability.

In this new work for the mini-course and book chapter, I will explore models developed by industry and academia and offer insights and tools for evaluating extracurricular event impacts that you can adapt to your particular circumstances. Importantly, it will also provide you with a decision filter tool to help you decide on and justify including or excluding certain impact indicators.


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