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How to measure your social impact

by Claudia Cahalane, freelance journalist specialising in social and ethical issues, equal rights and healthy living.

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If creating social impact is at the heart of who you are as an organisation then measuring – and more importantly, understanding – the social impact you create is just as important as keeping your finances in order.

As a founder or CEO, you should be confident in the impact you’re having on beneficiaries. But it’s not just enough to know – you need to collect real data that will show the difference you’re making in the world. That’s where social impact measurement comes in.

How will measuring social impact help?

  1. To prove that what you do is effective in changing something in the world for the better.
  2. To understand an ever-changing audience, which in turn shows where you can make changes or adjustments to create even stronger results for beneficiaries.
  3. To align your measurements with your organisation’s strategy and the kind of funding you want to attract. 
  4. To showcase your work for more effective marketing.

Many social enterprises start to measure their impact because of an external factor, like a funder requiring some evaluation. Some funders might want significant depth of information, others might be happy to track just a few outcomes and have some positive case studies.

It’s important to make sure the evidence you generate works to move your organisation forward, as well as meeting funders’ expectations. It may even support any policy or influencing work you want to undertake. It can also super-charge your marketing campaigns and give you cool things to say in funding applications.

You need to have a good sense of what you want evidence to do (i.e. how will it help you to prove, improve and align with your bigger goals?). This will help you to get the most out of any research or evaluation process you work on. 

Gary Stott, director of the social enterprise Community Shop, which won the Social Enterprise UK Award for Social Impact last year, says:

“We use the process of impact measurement each month to deliver organisational improvement. Let the process ask you challenging questions and change the way to produce KPIs in your organisation. Use the data to sit with the team of colleagues to wrestle with being the best version of yourself – as an organisation and as individuals within that.”

Who should I involve in measurement?

You probably want to involve stakeholders early in your thinking. Start with internal stakeholders: address the question of what you want evidence to do for you. Then engage external stakeholders. External stakeholders might be beneficiaries, funders or partners who can help you refine and challenge your thinking.

Getting groups of stakeholders together to help you create your theory of change, or help to guide your research/evaluation work, can ensure your research adds value beyond the insight it creates.

What should it cost?

Getting started in measuring social impact doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive – you might even be able to do it for free. There are a number of good guides out there to help you get started undertaking work internally – see the recommended links at the bottom of this article.

It’s always a good idea to think about the cost of evaluation when working on your project budget for grant applications and contract tenders. If you’re applying for significant funds, funders will expect you to be able to share information on what funds are used for, and the difference they’ve made. It’s hard to do this seriously without planning for some sensible investment in research and evaluation. Many funders will also expect sizeable programmes to undertake internal evaluation work, as well as having some independent validation of findings. 

There are a multitude of independent consultants, consulting agencies, academics and universities, charities and social enterprises who specialise in measuring social impact. However, the costs and the quality can vary hugely, so do your homework to understand what you really need before commissioning support. Ask for recommendations from other social entrepreneurs and social-sector leaders, and speak with a couple of providers to find the right fit for you.

What do I measure?

This involves working out what outcomes are important for you, funders, and the outside world to know. Speaking to stakeholders can help you decide what sort of outcomes will be useful to measure. What would work to engage your stakeholders in a conversation?

A common way of summarising the change you make as an organisation is to produce a theory of change. This is a visual way to tell the story of how you take your resources, use them to undertake activity which, in turn, changes meaningful things for people (or planet). Take a look at SSE’s theory of change as an example.

Producing a theory of change can help you find the most important metrics to measure. Some examples of metrics are:

  • how many people have taken your courses
  • the number of people you have helped find sustainable work
  • how much happier your beneficiaries are on a scale of 1-10 since coming into contact with you
  • how many beneficiaries have reduced dependency on drugs or alcohol
  • how much you’ve reduced carbon emissions with your activities

It’s not all about high numbers, of course. Perhaps helping a few people more profoundly might be better than offering something more basic to many more people. Make sure your evidence shows off both the quality and quantity of your work!

A key point to remember is that there’s a difference in performance research questions and impact research questions. The former include questions like ‘what level of performance is being achieved?’ and ‘how can we be more efficient in our service?’ The latter include the questions ‘how effective is our service?’ and ‘what difference does this make to people’s lives or the environment?’ Building your organisation’s capacity to do research and evaluation will let you ask, and find answers to, both kinds of questions. 

How do I measure?

Once you’ve worked out what you want to record, you can collect evidence in a variety of ways. Social enterprises who measure their impact suggest that using a few different methods in combination gives the best picture.

If you’re running a programme with beneficiaries over a period of time, consider taking pre and post measurements to allow you to see the distance moved over time. For other purposes, you may just need to collect data at a specific time in the programme, like at the end. It really depends on the context of your project. The chances are, you’ll want to collect some kind of information from the people who are impacted by your work. Your first research project may be identifying which groups of people are impacted by your work and in what ways. 

Likewise, you might use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to get the best picture. Quantitative data includes numerical and financial data. Qualitative data includes more subjective data like quotes, images, or videos which could be collected using surveys or focus groups. It’s okay for your research methods to be engaging and fun! Of course, it’s also important to think through research ethics and ensure that the methods you arrive at are appropriately sensitive for the people you work with.

The government’s Social Value Portal seeks to standardise social value measurement for the public sector and has a National Social Value Measurement Framework or National TOMs for short (TOMs stands for Themes, Outcomes and Measures) which you might be interested in looking at. 

Rose Marley, CEO of SharpFutures, which supports young people into creative careers, follows the TOMs as a baseline and then adds extra measurements on top. Different organisations can have different benchmarks for quantifying, for example, when someone has been ‘lifted out of poverty’. Marley suggests choosing definitions and measurements at the beginning and sticking with those definitions for several years. That way you can more clearly track your progress from year to year.

How do I make sense of my data?

In her Beginners’ guide to social impact measurement, Heidi Fisher, a consultant and specialist in social impact measurement, offers some ideas on analysing data. These are:

  • Counting positive and negative changes resulting from your work.
  • Creating charts/tables to display the data in a report.
  • Developing theories/reasons for what went well, what needs improving and what needs changing. 
  • Looking for patterns – such as whether beneficiaries with certain characteristics (e.g. age, gender, etc) achieve particular outcomes. 
  • Gathering further feedback on why you’ve been successful in achieving certain outcomes and unsuccessful with others. 

There are a huge number of different and interesting ways of analysing any kind of data you can imagine. To decide, it’s really all about using the data you’ve collected to help you answer your research questions.

How do I present my social impact findings?

It’s important to treat this as a communications project. Work out who you need to share your results with and the impact you want to have on them. 

Again, there isn’t one right way to go about it. The right way for your organisation might be producing hard copy reports, publishing articles in journals or sector magazines/newsletters, online reports, websites, interactive dashboards or infographics, just to name a few ideas. It’s likely you will need some high quality photographs to showcase your activities. There’s plenty of room for innovation and creativity here!

Happy measuring!

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