Measuring Social Impact

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The Stanford Social Innovation Review had a special series on measuring social impact this spring, full of so many terrific insights that it took me quite awhile to sift through all of the articles and, then, compose my thoughts at least somewhat, to post here.

I’d love to discuss any of the pieces, and I welcome your responses to my reactions, too.

Above all, I’m very glad to see this conversation within this sphere; if we’re not asking what our true impact is, we’re missing the only metric that really matters:

Are we making the difference we intend, and that so desperately needs to be made?

  • It is somewhat disturbing, really, that an article entitled, “Listening to Those who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries” even still needs to be written. The article highlights some promising beneficiary feedback initiatives around the world, giving detailed descriptions of how the perspectives of students in struggling schools and of patients in health care settings are being used to inform program innovations. It is my hope that the challenges outlined and the case made for the advantages that accrue when participants (I like this term better than ‘beneficiaries’) actively shape activities can both help to push public policy in this direction, too. Then we can really get to impact.
  • There is a brief outline of a larger academic paper centering on how to evaluate the effectiveness of civic engagement and advocacy efforts. Importantly, it incorporates multiple stakeholder perspectives, but I am still dissatisfied; it feels, to me, too much like asking about participant ‘satisfaction’, which may or may not be a good proxy for efficacy, even in the context of civic engagement (which, after all, is designed to foster feelings of good will within the community).
  • My advocacy evaluation work focuses on using evaluation to improve performance, but we are often constrained by the inadequacies of our evaluation approaches to capture the rather elusive nature of advocacy and social change activities. This dynamic, between measuring to improve and improving measurement, is the subject of one of the articles. It mostly summarizes a workshop session related to evaluation, but I appreciate the inclusion of several specific and innovative approaches. Sometimes we have to get a bit ‘meta’, stepping back from our work in order to invest in the capacity to perform it better.

The folks at SSIR have been leading the field on the question of how to really define ‘impact’, and so it’s not their oversight, but I do think that we, collectively, need to spend more time within our organizations, our profession, and our field really clarifying what impact means, and what it looks like, in order to ensure that we will, indeed, know it when we see it.

But maybe approaching it from this direction–how can we measure it, before we are necessarily sure what it is, should offer some appeal.

If one of the reasons we have excused ourselves from getting serious about setting the bar for ‘impact’ accurately has been that we don’t know how we will be able to know when we’ve reached it, then perhaps addressing the latter will light a fire under us for the former.

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