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Generating impact

The power of stories to construct a pathway to impact that can inspire change

Most of us are aware of the power of stories to help us communicate our research, whether we’re writing a keynote speech or a blog, or structuring an argument for our next research output. But I think stories can do more than just help us communicate better. By understanding the characteristics of good stories, it is possible to structure pathways that lead to powerful and effective impacts from our research.

 

Since before the written word, human beings have conveyed knowledge through the generations by means of stories. One of these stories is “the hero’s journey”. This archetypal story was studied by anthropologist Edward Tylor in the 19th century and by Jung in the early 20th century, and the research was popularised by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It has since been used to explain the enduring power of many of the world’s most popular books, films and religious texts. Campbell’s telling of the journey has seventeen stages, but here I’m going to condense it into seven major themes.

 

In a nutshell, we are introduced to a character (point 1) who has a problem (2). They meet a guide (3) who gives them a plan of action (4), before calling them to a specific action (5), which helps them avoid failure (6) and end in success (7). I will illustrate each theme with one of the classic hero’s journeys, The Lord of the Rings, but I’ll also explain using examples from my own research how each part of the journey can be harnessed to think about the impact of your research in ways that will deliver powerful benefits for those you seek to help.

1 You are not the hero of your research impact

The first part of the hero’s journey is to be introduced to the character, and this is the first point. This is the hero’s story, not yours. One of the first mistakes that we make on our pathway to impact is to think it is all about us; that we are that hero who is going to save the world through our research. The hero of an impact story should always be the person you are trying to help beyond the academy. As a result of your work, that organisation or those publics change what they are doing and collectively come together to do something incredible. It is those stakeholders who now as a result of your research change their world or the world. To take this first step on the hero’s journey in practical terms, you may need to do a publics or stakeholder analysis (see The Research Impact Handbook or my Research Impact Guides in the resources section of the Fast Track Impact website). So, the first step in the hero’s journey is to realise that as researchers we need to take on the role of the guide, not the hero, and as a researcher you can guide multiple heroes to their own hero’s ending.

Examples:

  • If we look at The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is the central character; the unlikely hero who is just a normal hobbit. There is nothing special about him, and many of the publics we work with will feel very similarly humble. The guide is Gandalf. This is a story about Frodo who comes from obscurity, who overcomes all of these challenges and succeeds in achieving his goal and becomes the hero. The story is not about Gandalf, although he is crucial to Frodo’s success.

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  • There are two heroes in the story of my peatland impact: government and business. Both have a hero’s role to play if they can help restore damaged peat bogs that are contributing to climate change, flooding and loss of biodiversity. Now, a government minister can become a hero with a huge legacy if they are able to say that they stood up for nature and were responsible for restoring peatlands. The other hero is business. If a company has done everything it can to be as green as possible and there is nothing else that they can do, they have the opportunity to become the hero in a story that uses their investment to help fix damaged peat bogs. Whether it is government or business, I am positioning myself as the guide that can help them achieve those goals. I typically signpost them to other researchers as I don’t have all the expertise they need, but even in this role of connecting them to others, I am playing the role of guide, rather than trying to steal the glory myself.

  • For Fast Track Impact, the hero of our story is the researcher who wants to be first to discover something new or to use their work to change the world. This is not about my research or how I am going to change the world; my role is to guide others to be the hero in their own impact story.

2 Know the depths of the problem you seek to solve

The second part of the hero’s journey is where our hero discovers a problem. There was a time when our hero had peace, but this has suddenly been disrupted and they now seek to regain that peace and contentment. Broadly speaking, there are two types of problems that disrupt this peace: external problems (when thinking about research impact these will be problems that are external to our stakeholders, publics and their organisations, for example, a disease pandemic in a resource-poor country); and internal problems that may be more philosophical in nature (for example, the helplessness felt by professionals who do not have the resources to help everyone in their care). When we connect with the internal challenges of our stakeholders and publics as well as their external challenges, we instantly begin to connect with people on a much deeper level, with a message that resonates and that people want to share. We also begin to see new opportunities for impact (for example, in addition to trying to find a new vaccine or get more resources to address the external problem, we may also start treating the symptoms of trauma and burnout among health professionals).

Examples:

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s home is a rural idyll, but a ring of power is discovered, and if it is not destroyed then his homeland will be invaded and destroyed. So the young and inexperienced Frodo has to leave his comfortable life and travel to the only place the ring can be destroyed; the evil land of Mordor. The external problem is destroying the ring, but Frodo also has to overcome the internal problem of his own insufficiency in the face of the challenge.

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  • One of the problems experienced by governments in my peatland research is that they have international obligations that cannot be met easily with extensively damaged peat bogs. The businesses may have done everything they can to be greener, but they know that they are still having a negative impact on that environment.

  • Ironically, impact is a problem for most of the researchers I work with in Fast Track Impact. They do not have time to do their research, teaching and administration, let alone have work-life balance. So, impact is a new, unwelcome additional pressure on their time that takes them even further from their research and further constrains their already limited thinking time. As a result, many academics feel they are losing touch with their identity as a researcher. The external problem is the challenge of finding time to generate impact to a standard that can be measured, but the linked internal problem is much deeper.

3 Become the guide (instead of the hero)

Next, the hero of the story meets a guide who can help them with their problem. When trying to tackle a major challenge, on a psychological level most people want to be empowered to solve the problem themselves and become their own hero, rather than having to rely passively on another hero to save the day on their behalf. As a result, if you present yourself as the hero who will solve the problem your way, you are likely to be rebuffed (or potentially even seen as a competitor to be defended against or defeated). Most people want a guide who can enable them to be the hero that they believe (or want to believe) has always been hiding somewhere inside them. Our task, then, is to become the guide, empowering and enabling others to solve their own problems and become the hero of their story with our help, rather than doing it for them and stealing their glory.

  • Frodo meets Gandalf, a wizard who knows all about rings and how to destroy them. Gandalf also has a certainty of belief in the innate abilities of Frodo to complete the task, which empowers him to set out on his journey

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  • I know that I don’t have enough expertise to be the kind of guide that governments and businesses need to solve peatland challenges on my own, and so I have aligned myself with an organisation that has access to that expertise, as their research lead. I’ve worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme for ten years and, as an organisation, it knows all about peatlands, and is connected to the wider research, business, practice and policy community. If anyone is going to be able to help you find a way through the evidence to solve problems as big as those facing peatlands, this is the kind of organisation that you need as a guide. Although I only work very part-time for IUCN, my role there gives me credibility as a guide that I could not have by myself.

  • In Fast Track Impact, the focus is more on me. Although I am an expert on research impact, I think my credibility as a guide comes more from my experience generating impact from the evidence I’ve published. I am trying to communicate to people that I am like them, facing the same pressures as a full-time member of academic staff at Newcastle University, but I am also achieving impact. I have both experience and expertise, which means I have learnt from my mistakes and therefore I can help you avoid the same mistakes. This builds trust in me as a guide who might actually be able to help simplify this and make it really easy for you to achieve what you need and be the hero in your own context, to discover that new thing or to change the world in some way. The need to generate impact is the external problem I can guide you on, but through my face-to-face trainings, podcast and articles like this, I want to become a guide to help you address the deeper problems that the impact agenda has created.

4 Give people concrete actions they can accomplish

In the next part of the hero’s journey, the guide gives the hero a plan of action or a set of tasks to complete. The plan or tasks, however, are rarely laid out in detail – there are missing links, riddles and opportunities to reinterpret and find new ways of doing things. If the hero does not have the resources or ability to perform the task, then the guide will give them some sort of aid, whether in the form of knowledge or tools. If you have positioned yourself as the guide, people will be looking expectantly to you for help, and if you are unable to provide concrete actions they can undertake and help them, they will quickly turn away to find a new guide.

5 Call people to action

This step might seem like it is part of the previous step – we’ve got a plan of action already. However, I have separated this out, because so many of us stop short of ever making a call to action. As a result, our plan, tasks or evidence-based approach is known about but never acted upon. If you think back to many of the biggest actions you have taken in your life, you usually had the knowledge of what to do long before you took the action. But then there was a call to action that galvanised you into taking that step at last. It takes some courage to make a call to action because people may say “no”. However, if you don’t, then there will almost always be some people who would have said “yes”, if only you had asked. I’m not saying we should always hit people with a call to action as soon as we have something that we think could benefit them from our research. This is a journey, and you should be taking the first four steps as slowly as necessary to build trust and credibility, and enable people to understand the actions you are proposing, why they will be a benefit and how you can help them as a guide. At this point in the journey, after they have been engaging with you (whether online or via face-to-face events or meetings) people are much more likely to try something out based on your research, compared to going in straight away with your ideas. Engagement is good but at some point we need to turn engagement into impact. It is surprising what people can be empowered to do, based on one conversation, or one request from one person, at the right time. So what is your call to action?

Examples:

  • In The Lord of the Rings, a “fellowship” of companions is formed to help Frodo destroy the ring. Their first meeting descends into chaos as nobody can agree on the best plan. Then Gandalf quietens them all and says “You’ve got to do something. 

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  • This is what I suggest you do. You’ve got to go to Mordor and Frodo is going to carry this ring”. There is a time for talking and planning, and a time to decide and act.

6 Avoid failure

In the sixth part of the journey our hero recognises their fallibility, and the possibility of failure becomes apparent. However, they draw on the expertise of their guide to avoid failure, whether getting help from them directly or more indirectly drawing on the wisdom they have learned previously from the guide.

 

When people realise that they have a personal stake in the impacts we are helping them generate, failure has a cost. As that cost becomes apparent, people are more likely to engage with the evidence or support we can provide to avoid failure. However, this cost is not always immediately apparent, especially when a person has not yet responded to the call to action. In this case, the guide in the hero’s story often makes the cost of inaction explicit, as a way of motivating the hero to take the next step or complete their mission. Psychological studies have shown that people are typically more motivated to do things that avoid them losing something they already have, than to do something that will get them something they want but do not already possess. Advertisers regularly use this insight in manipulative ways (just think about negative political campaigning) and it is important to think deeply about your role as the guide in this part of the story. To avoid becoming manipulative, it is important that you are transparent in your approach (identifying and declaring any potential conflicts of interest), and make sure you are clearly seeking the best interests of the other person.

Examples:

  • Before the Fellowship of the Ring sets out, Gandalf warns them of the grave consequences for the whole of Middle Earth if they fail in their mission.

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  • In my peatland research I worked with IUCN UK Peatland Programme on a Commission of Inquiry that looked at the consequences of not fixing damaged peatlands (inaction leads to much more costly problems in the long term as peat bogs are left to erode, leaking carbon, losing wildlife, colouring water and causing flooding).

  • In Fast Track Impact I warn everyone I train of the negative unintended consequences of engaging with impact for the wrong reasons in ways that the evidence would suggest are unlikely to work. When we engage with impact primarily to get research funding, promotion or for institutional rankings and prestige, we are no longer the guide. We have become the hero. It is all about us, and the benefits we can get for our careers and teams. The people we are ostensibly trying to help can usually detect this very quickly and are rightly suspicious of our motives. They know instinctively that we’ll drop them when the going gets tough, and that at any point they may be left alone without a guide, or worse, become subservient to our goals as minor characters in a story that will make us the hero rather than them. That’s why I ask everyone I train to remember why they first wanted to become a researcher, and to engage with impact from those authentic, intrinsic motives. Only from that place can we genuinely become the guide in the hero’s journey, facilitating benefits for others and celebrating the end of their hero’s journey with them

7 Facilitate success

The final part of the hero’s journey is achieving success, usually facilitated by the guide, who has just helped them narrowly avoid failure. Part of our role as guides is to help the people we work with to envision what success will look like. As they imagine themselves achieving their goal as the hero of their story, we empower them to continue on the pathway to impact and achieve their own success, with you as the guide and them as the hero.

 

Examples:

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo ultimately destroys the ring, based on the instructions given to him by Gandalf.

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  • My peatland research has contributed to the development and launch of the Peatland Code, enabling businesses to partner with government, landowners and with third sector organisations to fix peat bogs across the country. We are now working with the United Nations to look at how these kinds of tools could enable us to get more money from both public and private sectors to restore degraded peatlands around the world.

  • With Fast Track Impact, when you start reading The Research Impact Handbook or when you come onto a course, one of the first exercises you complete is to imagine the impacts you could achieve from your research. The book and course give you the tools you need to achieve success, but you have to go on your own journey to use this guidance to achieve impact. As a result, 95% of the researchers that I train change their approach to impact in response to the course, and 62% say that they achieve new impacts within six months of doing my course as a direct result of that training.

 

When you make your stakeholders and your publics the hero of their own impact story, and you position yourself as their guide, you can enable people to achieve things they never dreamt were possible. With limited time, as guides we can enable others to achieve impacts based on our research without having to do it all ourselves. When the focus is on their story rather than ours, we get to celebrate success with them, and move on to guide others who want to see similar benefits. When we understand the power of the story, we don’t just write better talks and articles, by following the hero’s journey we can use that power to achieve impact.

  • In my peatland research, we moved beyond our series of meetings where we discussed the scientific consensus and what could in theory be done, to devise evidence-based policy actions that could actually be achieved. As a result, millions of pounds of UK public funds and European money has now been invested in restoring peatlands, and we have a policy mechanism that enables businesses to invest in restoring peat bogs that now has 21 projects in the pipeline.

  • In Fast Track Impact, the call to action is contained in The Research Impact Handbook; part two of the book describes five practical steps to put what you have learned in part 1 into practice. At the end of each of the five chapters there is a list of specific actions that you can perform to take the next step. If you come to one of my training events, I will encourage you to sign up to my follow-up training, which sends you those five chapters of my book with videos and resources, one by one each week. The free online training on my website is also based around these five chapters. Each week, you get clear calls to action that enable you to actually put your plan into practice and achieve impact.

There are two types of action that we can suggest to people when we are planning for impact. The first action is an intermediary step: it is to engage more with you. By making it easy for people to engage more deeply with you, it becomes possible to provide them with the knowledge, skills or tools they will need to solve the challenge and be the hero. This step is important if the people you are working with don’t feel ready to take the plunge and undertake the ultimate action that will solve the problem. Instead, you give them the time and space to prepare for what comes next. The second action is the ultimate task, plan or idea that will enable the person you are working with to solve the problem. The key is to pitch the idea but be prepared that some will instantly get it, while others will need an intermediary action they can perform that takes them closer to being able to perform the ultimate action.

 

Examples:

  • Gandalf as the guide tells Frodo who he will need to work with to achieve his goal, and gives him directions to Rivendale to meet them and start the journey together. Later in the story, when it appears that Gandalf has died, Frodo and his companions meet another guide who gives them each a gift they will need to complete the tasks in front of them. The first action he is given is simply to leave the shire and meet Gandalf in a safe place to learn what he should do next. Although scary, this is just a first preparatory step that is achievable with the confidence and skills he has at this point in the journey. The gifts that are given later are part of the ultimate call to action, as they are designed to help Frodo actually destroy the ring.

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  • In my peatland work, the first step was to bring together researchers and members of the business, practice and policy community in a series of events over a number of years, to learn from each other about how we could solve the problems together. From these meetings, we built a shared understanding of where the scientific consensus lay, and where there was divergence and more work to be done. Then on the basis of the evidence we could all agree upon, we had the knowledge and tools to start taking the ultimate actions needed to restore damaged peat bogs.

  • In Fast Track Impact this is about engaging with me through social media, listening to my podcast, using my online resources or coming to a training event. These are easy to do, intermediate steps that enable you to learn more about impact, find out about useful tools you can use, and come up with a plan for engagement and impact. Now you have a clear plan of action that you can achieve no matter what your experience or confidence level, the career stage you are at, or the discipline you are in. You know what you have to do and can now start taking the ultimate actions that will achieve impact.

 

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    4. Give everyone a fixed number of sticky dots and ask them during a break to prioritise the impacts they think are most important to discuss, placing more dots on more important impacts.

    5. Identify top-ranked impacts based on sticky dots and divide the group into small groups to discuss the top-ranked impacts.

    6. Facilitate discussion, for example, via two 30-minute round-table discussions with a facilitator and note-taker, giving people the opportunity to choose a second table if they wish after 30 minutes. Get facilitators to provide a one-minute summary at the end of the session. Alternatively, move the clusters of impact Post-its to flip-chart stations around the room and rotate small groups around the stations, giving a reducing amount of time per station each rotation. Get each group to carry their own coloured pen with them and at the end tell the group to revisit the station they started at to see what was added by other groups in different colours. Discussion can be structured or unstructured. If you want to structure it, consider prompts, for example, the outline of the idea or action; who would need to be involved and what resources would be needed; how you would make it happen; why it is important (specific benefits that would arise if you succeeded).

    7. Whichever technique you use, finish with an opportunity to join working groups to follow-up the ideas discussed for each impact. This can be done via sheets of paper put on each table or station, with space for names and email addresses, making it clear how you will store and use their contact details. If using the round-table technique, you can ask each group to identify an academic and non-academic lead to take responsibility for the follow-up, but in both cases you will need to assign someone from your team to check that the working group is following up the work.

  4. After the meeting: Give the groups a clear deadline and then compile working group reports into an overall workshop report for all participants. Follow and support each group, as far as you are able, to facilitate them to achieve impacts. Some groups will succeed, while others will fail. The work of some groups will be based on your research and some will be based on other inputs. You have the ability to follow-up and evaluate over the long term with group members who benefited and how, so you can evidence your impact.

 

This plan gives you an opportunity to translate the enthusiasm and creativity that is often in abundance at the end of a project into concrete actions. You are also able to follow these up, increasing the likelihood that you achieve impacts, and you can contact people in the long term to evaluate the benefits, in a GDPR-compliant manner.

Three questions that will help you write more competitive impact sections in your next grant proposal

Being able to describe potential impacts and how you might achieve them is increasingly important for research funding success. It can feel daunting when you are faced with a blank form asking you to describe the impact of your proposed research. But it is remarkably simple when you boil it down to the basics. Essentially, all you need to do is:

 

  • Articulate specific, significant and far-reaching benefits

  • Understand who will benefit and consider any risks and assumptions you may be making

  • Identify activities that will achieve each of your intended benefits for each of your intended beneficiaries

 

The trick is to be systematic. Map your benefits to your beneficiaries and systematically check that there is an activity to reach each benefit that is adapted to the needs and characteristics of each beneficiary group. This article explains exactly how to do this. Alternatively, we’ve broken this down into a step-by-step process in our new Pathway to Impact Builder, where you can answer ten questions and be sent the draft sections of your grant application as an editable document in Word. Creating a first draft takes about 30 minutes, and you can develop a strong draft in no more than an hour if you know the questions you need to answer.

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1. What are the benefits?

The first thing you need is some really specific impact goals. These are not vague aspirations to change the world, change government policy or meet all the Sustainable Development Goals. These are highly specific, and as a result, highly credible. Now, we are aiming to contribute to one particular Sustainable Development Goal, and make measurable progress towards two of the targets in that goal in a country where this is particularly important, feeding into specific initiatives or policies that might credibly move the needle on this particular issue.

Somewhere between three and five impact goals is a good target for the average research proposal, but for large projects you may aim for many more. If you are struggling to come up with impact goals, start by doing a stakeholder or publics analysis (the second question) and asking people who you think should be interested in your research how they or others like them might benefit. Once you’ve identified a benefit you’ve got an impact, and you can start getting specific to turn it into a goal. To expand your list of goals and be systematic, consider using a checklist like my impact typology in The Research Impact Handbook, where I identify ten types of impact you might want to aim for. Now rather than being blinkered to the one end-of-pipe solution that first occurred to you (e.g. health and wellbeing, social, environmental, economic or cultural impacts), you may also have some interim impacts that may be achievable sooner in your research (e.g. capacity building, understanding and awareness, attitudinal change, behaviour change and policy). This is likely to appeal to both the risk-averse and “bored” members of a funding panel, giving the risk-averse panellist the easier impacts that are likely to happen within the lifetime of the project, and the bored panellist, who just wants to see that one high-risk, high-reward proposal, the opportunity to get excited about your long-term vision for what this might achieve. Finally, ensure you make your goals as specific, significant and far-reaching as possible.

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2. Who benefits?

The second question you have to ask is who will benefit from the impacts you are envisaging? These groups are often called beneficiaries, and this is useful because impact can be defined in simple terms as benefit. You’ve identified a range of potential benefits, but now you’re asking who benefits, you immediately see that there are winners and losers. What is a benefit for one group at one time in one context, may be a disadvantage or may compromise or harm the interests of another group in another time and context. The main focus in a funding proposal is the beneficiaries, but you need to be aware of whether there could be negative unintended consequences and, if possible, mitigate those risks. You have the opportunity to develop a plan that gets as many benefits for as many people as possible and ameliorates the worst effects for those you can’t avoid disadvantaging.

The key is to be systematic. Starting with a blank piece of paper, most of us can identify a few key players that we should probably involve, but we may not be aware of the biases and gaps in our knowledge that inadvertently lead us to voiceless groups who are regularly marginalised by researchers and others in society. If you are diligent, then you may come up with lists of hundreds of organisations. However, half an hour is usually more than enough time to identify all the stakeholders and publics who are likely to have an interest in your proposed research. For each organisation or group, ask three questions:

 

  1. Where is the intersection between their interests and your research interests? There are lots of things that you could do to help them that could be impact, but just wouldn’t be research impact unless they are linked to your research. You now have groups who are interested in specific parts of your research.

  2. The second question is what level of influence might they have on your ability to achieve benefits for them or for other people through the research? That influence can work in two ways. It can be the power to facilitate and enable you to achieve impact, typically because they have very similar impact goals to you. If you connect with them early enough in the process, then they will potentially throw staff time, resources, money and data at you. Alternatively, these organisations and groups, or people within them, may have the power to block you from achieving impact. In some cases they will have the power to block you from even doing your research.

  3. Finally, ask how each group might benefit if they engaged with your research? Often the groups with the least influence enjoy the greatest benefit, and it is important that you don’t overlook them.

 

Finally, depending on how many groups and organisations you come up with, you may want to organise them into categories, such as private versus public, and for or against. There is no right way to categorise stakeholders or publics, but it is often useful to do this by common interest or purpose. You can now list beneficiaries concisely in a list, grouping similar stakeholders and publics together, with lists of example organisations illustrating each group, so you’ve got a level of specificity that is highly credible. You may take this a step further if you like, and reach out to some of these organisations to ask them to join an advisory panel for your project. When you do so, look at the specific interest you thought they had in your research and use this to frame your email, to increase the likelihood of a positive response.

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3. What activities will I pursue?

The third and final element is to have a credible plan for impact. Depending on your funder, this could be a communications (or dissemination) plan, or it may be an impact plan or pathway to impact. In the UK we are asked to complete an impact summary, where you write the answers to questions 1 and 2 above, and a pathway to impact, which is the focus of this third question. Your task is to make sure that your answers to all three questions coherently map onto each other.

 

  • Systematically read through each of your impact goals (question 1), and ask which of the groups you identified in question 2 will benefit from each goal. If there is an impact goal that does not have anyone who will benefit from it, you either have a missing beneficiary group (and you can add them in) or an irrelevant goal (which you can delete or change to be relevant to at least one beneficiary).

  • Now do the reverse, and run through your list of beneficiaries, asking what impact goal you expect them to benefit from. If there are beneficiaries that don’t have an impact goal they will benefit from, then you either have a missing impact goal (you can add a new one) or an irrelevant beneficiary (which you can delete or change).

  • Finally, you need to make sure you have a list of specific activities, plans or pathways that will enable each and every single one of your impact goals to be achieved, benefiting each and every one of your beneficiaries. If you identify activities that do not help you achieve any of your goals or benefit any of your stakeholders or publics, then you probably have an irrelevant activity (social media and websites often fall into this category), but you may have a missing impact goal or beneficiary. Similarly, go through all your impact goals and make sure you have at least one activity that will enable you to reach it. Then go through all your beneficiaries and check that there is at least one activity that is tailored to their needs and characteristics, and will enable them to benefit from a relevant impact goal. Finally, check that you have enough credible activities for your pathway to be believable. In particular, ask yourself whether there are preparatory, intermediate or follow-on steps you may want to plan into a multi-stage pathway to impact for some goals and beneficiaries.

 

That’s it. It really is as simple as answering three questions. Of course, there are many other valuable tips and components you can build into a strong impact section of a grant proposal. You can read more detailed guides to writing the impact sections of a grant in the guide section of the resources page of the Fast Track Impact website. You’ll also find our Pathway to Impact Best Practice Library and Pathway to Impact Builder there. Keep things simple and systematic, and always remember that specificity = credibility.

First steps: How to reach out to publics or stakeholders when you have no idea how your research could help them

Sometimes the first steps towards impact can feel a bit like a blind date. You’re each sizing the other up, second-guessing each other’s motives and trying to find an opening line that will enable you get to know each other better (and not end in embarrassed silence). It doesn’t have to be like this. Even if you are doing non-applied arts and humanities scholarship or “pure” science, it is possible to start your journey towards impact with your eyes wide open, and find people who genuinely want to talk to you. A publics/stakeholder analysis works in a similar way to a dating site, taking out much of the guess work and increasing the likelihood that you’re talking to someone who is actually interested in what you have to offer. But even once you think you’ve identified someone who might be interested in your research, those first tentative steps can still be really nerve-wracking.

 

I’ve reached out to a number of organisations in the past to try and find ways I could help them, and as research lead for a conservation charity I am often propositioned by hopeful researchers. Here’s what I’ve learned:

 

  1. First, ask yourself if you already have any relevant contacts beyond the academy who you might be able to meet informally to discuss your research. Reach out in exploratory mode, framing your initial communications as such, rather than over-promising. The focus needs to be on finding out more about their needs and interests and working with them to identify ways you can make your work more interesting/useful to them or others like them.

  2. If you are starting from scratch, do a publics/stakeholder analysis (see the template on the resource page on the Fast Track Impact website) to identify other academics in (or close to) your discipline who you know/think are more engaged with publics and stakeholders.

  3. Either invite them all to a workshop to do a publics/stakeholder analysis together with you, or invite them individually to meet you over tea/coffee and ask them the questions in the publics/stakeholder analysis more informally (i.e. who might be interested in different aspects of my research, how influential could they be in helping me benefit others, how might they benefit themselves?).

 

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  3. A

  4. These researchers should hopefully be able to tell you more about potential intersections between your research and the interests of key organisations they are familiar with, and enable you to develop a more targeted approach to the most important of these organisations. You should now be able to draft emails to different organisations, framing your work according to how you think it is most likely to resonate with their individual interests or organisational goals.

  5. Based on this exploratory work, identify the top 1–3 organisations/groups who you think are likely to be interested, influential and/or benefit most (these should in theory be most likely to respond at this early stage).

  6. Request meetings with each group separately, framing your email around your understanding of their interests as they intersect with yours. Ask if you might be able to offer some fairly specific contributions (that you think they would appreciate based on your publics/stakeholder analysis) as examples of the sorts of things you might be able to do (but keep things open in case you got this wrong). Explain that you would like to meet them to discuss their needs and interests.

  7. It is important to point out that you don’t intend to charge for any help you provide and you are not looking for funding, as your research is already funded. You can explain that as part of your existing funding, you have time available to work with them linked to your research and have networks of other researchers that may be able to help them with wider issues you don’t directly research yourself. 

  8. Go prepared with summaries of your research (as briefing notes rather than PowerPoint presentations) but focus the meeting on understanding their context and needs. You will need to explain more about your research and interests, but try and keep this brief so they tell you more about their context and interests in depth first. Then you can tailor more detailed information (and decide if it is relevant to bring out your pre-prepared briefing) to the interests they have stated.

  9. Try to identify at least one action that you could perform that would help them. If the only thing they want/need is not something you can help with, then explain that your action will be to find someone who can help with this, and make sure that you find that person and work with them to deliver what they need. The key is to demonstrate that you can help, and are not limited to only helping with things that help you generate impact from your own research. By building trust in this way, you get more opportunities and increase the likelihood that you can find ways of benefiting them more directly based on your own work.

  10. Ask if it is okay to meet up in six months to follow up and help further.

 

Download an editable publics/stakeholder analysis template from the resource page at Fast Track Impact: www.fasttrackimpact.com/resources

How to design an end-of-project stakeholder meeting to both generate and evaluate impact

Research projects often end with workshops or conferences for stakeholders in which researchers treat their audiences to “death by PowerPoint”, hoping that their research findings will subsequently be used by their audiences. Such events may tick a box labelled “dissemination”, but they are rarely effective pathways to real and lasting impact.

 

Here is an alternative that is more likely to engage your audience and lead to evidenceable impacts:

 

  1. Before the meeting: Consider whether you want to send any materials to participants in advance. This may include, for example, plain language briefing notes about the research for those who want to prepare for the meeting, or a pre-meeting survey to understand key concerns, needs or perceptions, which can be presented at the meeting and built upon in the activities that follow.

  2. At the meeting: At minimum, run an action planning session at the very end, where you invite participants to identify actions that have arisen during the meeting, and write these at the front and discuss as a group who will commit to lead on each action and by when.

  3. Ideally, take this a step further and get participants to identify impact actions as part of the meeting:

    1. Give everyone a fixed number of Post-it notes and ask them to answer an impact-oriented question, like “what would you like to see change as a result of today”, “what actions are you taking home with you from today”, or “what will you do differently as a result of today”?

    2. Writing one answer per Post-it, ask people to take their answers to the front of the room and place them on a flip-chart-papered wall, clustering similar answers together (you can help with the clustering, and if you have a large group, make sure you have more than one person reading answers as they go, to help you cluster them).

    3. With one of your team members, take it in turns to describe a cluster, reading one or two illustrative examples, circling and naming each cluster, till all are circled and named.