Measuring social impact – gains and gaps


By Chris Gandy

One of our major Touchstones is “Effect”. In other words, what is the effect or impact of our programs? Are they positively changing behaviour, assisting our clients to a better place, reversing global warming etc.?

While it is really encouraging to come across more and more organisations genuinely talking about this Touchstone, the conversation inevitably reverts to “How do we measure it?”

Interestingly, we recently came across a post by Matthew Forti, the Performance Measurement Capability Area manager at The Bridgespan Group, on what he believes have been the major improvements in the measurement of social impact over the past decade as well as areas that need further improvement.

In Matt’s view the areas where there have been positive shifts are:

1. From overhead to outcomes. For years the assumption was that if we are spending less on overheads then more must be spent on programs. I’ll throw another one in here from an Australian perspective – the greater the organisations turnover, the greater the impact. These assumptions are fading fast  with funding bodies and most major rating agencies now measuring organisations on the quality of their outcomes.

2. From ideology to evidence. More and more organisations are letting the evidence decide the elements of their programs and not slavishly following a dated organisational mantra. Matt cites organisations tackling global poverty and the education sector as examples of this.

3. From isolated to shared measurement. Partnership and collaboration across organisations and sectors to meet common goals is gathering pace aided by great advances in technology and in social media.

4. From straightforward to complex interventions. “Innovation in measurement used to focus mainly on direct-service interventions with fairly linear logic models (for example, how to rigorously measure outcomes of a summer literacy program for children). But lately there has been an explosion of innovative approaches  for measuring what’s happening in more dynamic environments, such as advocacy work, systems change, or neighborhood revitalization” says Matt.

Now for the areas where we are still lagging and further improvement is required:

1. Greater focus on long-term outcomes. Many cause-based organisations still get by with measuring only what’s easiest to measure: short-term outcomes such as school attendance or job placement rates. But, as Matt argues…if nonprofits want to change lives, they should also care about whether their programs are helping people achieve more meaningful goals, such as completing college or making sustained economic gains. If more nonprofits asked the question of whether the people they serve actually end up in a better situation over the long haul, there would perhaps be a greater focus on holistic interventions or collaborations that create solid pathways to those more meaningful outcomes.

2. Greater recognition of organisational and contextual factors that drive strong performance. “Great – this intervention is working well in inner Melbourne, so let’s roll it out across the country!” If you have worked in a multi-site organisation you may have experienced this. How often, however, has the success been fully replicated? Not too many, right? This is because most evaluation studies devote little, if any, attention to underlying organisational factors (such as “site culture and leader characteristics) and contextual factors (such demographics and the presence of high-capacity partners) that play critical roles in success.

3. A bigger role for an organisation’s stakeholders in performance measurement. Matt contends that …“Nonprofits have a hard enough time implementing a measurement system that works for senior leaders and program staff; they rarely tackle the question of how measurement can work for the individuals, families, and communities they seek to benefit. But nonprofits often do a real disservice to these constituents—and their own success—when they fail to involve their constituents in reflecting on results, setting goals, and deciding how best to achieve those goals”.

4. We annually have external financial audits so why not annual external performance audits? External financial auditors are embedded in our annual business routines. As a sector we may be equally well served by having independent social impact analysts to help clarify for funders and cause-base organisations the extent to which program data is correct and useful.
What other gains or gaps in social sector measurement would you add to Matthew’s list?

About the author – Chris Gandy is a Director of Cause and Effective , providers of Coaching, Consulting, Facilitation and Executive Transition services to cause-based organisations.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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