Stop Wasting Time on Social Impact Measurement

Posted on June 6, 2018
By Jonathan Coburn

So, let’s start with something we can all agree on.

All social enterprises exist for the simple and overriding purpose of creating a positive social impact (to change society for the better).

If this is what drives us, then surely, it’s important that we are able to describe, measure and communicate this impact. At least, that’s how the argument goes. Not least to help figure out if our work is well targeted, if we are helping beneficiaries in the best way possible and, ultimately, if we are making good progress in achieving our intended impact.

This is a low-level but persistent headache facing social enterprises, purpose-driven businesses, and enterprising nonprofits of all kinds.

There are a number of parts to the challenge.

Dazzlingly Complicated

There is a strong argument that this thing, loosely termed ‘social impact measurement’, is just too complicated as currently presented. The outcomes that we bring about through our social enterprises are just too diverse, intangible and long-term to be accurately counted and accounted for.

Added to this, frameworks such as Social Return on Investment (SROI) have been shown to be too difficult, prescriptive, time-consuming and expensive for most organizations to apply.

Most social enterprises are very small, often fragile and always busy in service to their community.

And, even if measuring impact is a priority, most don’t know where to start.

As things stand, social impact measurement will never become a high priority unless the benefits are clear and compelling.

7 Ways to Better Impact Practice

While there is no silver bullet or no-cost solution to the measurement dilemma facing social enterprises, experience tells us that with just a little time and effort even the smallest of organizations can improve their practice and produce good evidence.

Check out these 7 tips to help you but impact practice in perspective and take a manageable and effective approach to measurement with your social enterprise.

1. Reconnect With Our ‘Why’
Re-connect with the social mission and goals that drive your social enterprise activity. Have more useful conversations about why you exist, what you need to achieve, what success should look like, how it can be delivered, and (only then) how we should measure it.

2. Get Over the Fear
Build confidence and get over the fear we have about impact measurement by taking opportunities to learn about how simple (and uncomplicated) impact measurement can be and why it really doesn’t need to become an added burden. It also means finding good examples of impact reporting and practical tools that you can use to get started.

3. Think Differently
Adopt a more holistic perspective on what makes our social enterprises uniquely successful and different from traditional private sector competitors. This includes gathering good data on how we treat employees, source supplies, consider the environment, engage communities, trade responsibly, spend profits. That, along with finding more straightforward ways of report on the difference made by our services for individuals and communities is how we can produce a more proportionate and balanced account of our work.

4. Keep it Simple
It’s critical for small organizations in particular to get the basics right first … walking before we start running (or jumping through hoops). This means focusing intently on the single main goal (our intended impact) that drives your work and the few main changes (outcomes) that you need to achieve to be successful. It also means introducing simple data collection systems that become part of routine practice. So let’s not beat ourselves up if we’re not striving for the gold standard of impact measurement science or putting in more effort than is necessary.

5. Focus on Practice Not Process
This is critical. As a community, we need to stop the fixation with finding the holy grail – a single, consistently applied impact measurement process that meets everyone’s needs – or else we will continue to meet no-one’s needs. Instead, let’s focus on improving PRACTICE. In other words, getting steadily better at defining our goals, collecting useful data and using evidence to learn and strengthen our impact.

6. Embrace Stories as Well as Numbers
We also need to let go of, or avoid, the obsession with expressing social outcomes in monetary terms. While recognising the importance of credible numbers, let’s give equal weight to the stories that lie behind the achievements of our social enterprises. Let’s embrace compelling narrative, great story-telling and creative reporting (using infographics, images, video, and so on).

7. Get a Little Help Where We Can
Finally, recognise that a little extra help is often required to get systems up and running and organizations on the right track. This is where bite-sized, just-in-time learning (perhaps online) can come in particularly useful. It’s where an hour of time from an expert, coach or mentor can be more much more helpful than large-scale, wasteful consultancy projects.

The main point to all of this is that all social enterprises should be able to find an approach that works for them; one that is relevant, manageable and produces the types of performance and impact evidence they need.

To find out more about actionable tools and tips to support Social Impact Measurement, check out the Impact Practice Series from the Social Enterprise Institute.


This blog was originally posted on the Social Enterprise Institute website by Jonathan Coburn, May 2018 and is re-posted here with permission. 

Social Innovation

Jonathan Coburn

By Jonathan Coburn

Jonathan has worked in the social enterprise field for 23 years as a developer, strategist, researcher and impact evaluation specialist. Over the period his focus has been on enabling social enterprises to grow and demonstrate their impact in a robust and balanced way. He started his career in the community economic development field, helping to get new social ventures off the ground and supporting enterprising non-profits to transform their culture and impact. He has gone on to support the social enterprise sector in a variety of roles, including as director of a national research agency. Creative and driven, he founded Social Value Lab in 2010, establishing it as an international Centre of Excellence for Impact Measurement. With Social Value Lab, he has led teams that have researched and evaluated pioneering new approaches to social enterprise development. Much of his work at Social Value Lab has centred on finding simpler and better ways to measure social enterprise performance and impact, and supporting others to do the same. He continues to work with frontline social enterprises as well as the supporting cast of governments, national and international agencies, foundations and investors.

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