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Attribution vs contribution in impact measurement

Learn attribution vs contribution in social impact measurement
Written by
Hetal Sheth
Published on
December 14, 2021

Attribution vs contribution: Attribution assigns credit for an idea or works to a source, while contribution is about what one adds or enhances in a collaborative setting.

Attribution versus Contribution

Social purpose organizations strive to impact society positively, but determining how much their programs or services contribute to these outcomes can be challenging. They often struggle with attribution versus contribution conundrums.

Additionally, understanding the role of impact investors in generating these outcomes adds another layer of complexity. This article will explore attribution and contribution in impact measurement, exploring their differences, challenges, and implications for funders.

By grasping these concepts, social enterprises and impact investors can gain valuable insights into the effectiveness of their interventions and their overall impact on society.

In this blog, we address:

  • What is attribution in impact measurement?
  • The challenges with attribution
  • Centering contributions for funders

Enterprises seek to generate a positive impact on society. These social impact programs are often complicated and operate in complex social environments with external factors affecting outcomes.

Determining the precise attribution of outcomes to the program and, in turn, to funders is quite challenging. Contribution, however, focuses on how the funder's inputs have helped to cause the outcomes. It keeps the focus on the stakeholders and the impact that they experience.

What is attribution in impact measurement?

In impact investing, there is no single definition of attribution nor a standardized means of measuring it. (DCED) Impact investors seek to generate a financial return and outcomes that benefit society.

Measuring financial return is relatively straightforward. The challenge comes with the second part, measuring the outcomes that benefit society. This is where effective impact measurement uses the same monitoring, evaluation, and social sciences tools used in public policy. (SSIR)

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines attribution as the “ascription of a causal link between observed (or expected to be observed) changes and a specific intervention.” (UNICEF) Impact measurement relies on these ideas:

  • causality - that the program directly caused the observed outcomes
  • counterfactual - what would have happened if the program never occurred (UNICEF)

Attribution analysis asks: How has the program caused the outcomes?

Impact attribution

Impact attribution refers to determining and assigning credit to the specific interventions or activities that have contributed to a desired social or environmental outcome. It involves identifying the causal links between actions taken and the observed impact and attributing the responsibility for the positive change to the appropriate factors or entities involved.

Impact attribution helps organizations understand the effectiveness of their interventions, allocate resources efficiently, and improve program design by identifying which activities are most influential in achieving desired outcomes. It is a critical aspect of impact evaluation and measurement, enabling organizations to assess their contribution to social change and make informed decisions based on evidence.

I want to go outside for fresh air, so I push the door open and go outside. I caused the door to open (causality), which would not have opened without me pushing it (counterfactual). I acted alone, so the outcome can be attributed exclusively to my intervention.

Now, imagine that a friend joined me in pushing the door open. What portion of the outcome can I attribute to my friend, and what portion to me? Imagine we broke the door while trying to open it. To whom can we attribute this negative outcome? This is the concept of attribution and the challenge it presents.

Align Output and utcome Metrics
Align Activity Metrics, Output Metrics and Outcome Metrics for Impact Attribution

The Challenges with Impact Attribution

Measuring attribution poses several challenges due to the complexity of social impact programs and external factors influencing outcomes. Establishing a direct causal relationship between a program and its outcomes is often difficult, especially when multiple factors are at play. Moreover, conducting control-group experiments, a common method for measuring attribution, may not always be practical, possible, or cost-effective in real-life scenarios.

For instance:

Consider a scenario where your job training program reports an 80% increase in clients finding employment. However, a large online shopping company established a new warehouse in the area during the same period. Establishing the precise level of causality and providing counterfactual evidence for the impact of your job training program can be quite challenging. In some situations, it may even be impossible to determine.

What is Contribution in Impact Measurement?

Contribution, however, takes a broader perspective and focuses on how a funder's inputs have helped cause the observed outcomes. Rather than solely attributing outcomes to a specific intervention, contribution analysis considers the impact of multiple stakeholders and their collective efforts. It utilizes the theory of change, case studies, and surveys to determine if changes have occurred due to the program.

Attribute vs Contribute: Which one?

From a funder's perspective, contribution emphasizes an enterprise or investor's effects on achieving outcomes that are better than what would have occurred otherwise. It shifts the focus from pinpointing the exact portion of outcomes attributed to the funder's inputs to understanding how those inputs have increased the likelihood of achieving positive outcomes.

By adopting a contribution-focused approach, funders can better understand their shared efforts with other partners and their collective impact on the populations they serve.

Attribute vs Contribute
Attribute vs Contribute

Overcoming Challenges in Attribution for Multiple Funders

When a program involves multiple funders, attributing outcomes to specific inputs becomes more complex. Prorating based on the proportion of investment is a common approach, where each funder's contribution is calculated relative to their investment. However, this simplistic approach may not capture the full impact of each funder's involvement. Acknowledging the challenges associated with attribution is crucial to avoid impact washing and ensure a comprehensive understanding of the program's impact.

Focus on Contribution

Given the challenges associated with attribution, focusing on contribution offers a more practical and insightful approach to impact measurement. It considers the broader impact of a program and maintains the focus on shared outcomes for stakeholders. Instead of relying solely on control-group experiments, contribution analysis utilizes various tools and methodologies, such as the theory of change, case studies, and surveys, to assess the program's effectiveness in causing observed outcomes.


Measuring the impact of social enterprises and the role of impact investors requires a nuanced understanding of attribution and contribution in impact measurement. While attribution seeks to establish a direct causal link between interventions and outcomes, contribution takes a broader perspective by considering the collective efforts of multiple stakeholders.

Acknowledging the challenges associated with attribution and embracing a contribution-focused approach enables funders to understand better their role in achieving positive social impact. By continuously improving impact measurement methodologies and centering contributions, social enterprises and impact investors can effectively assess their programs' effectiveness and drive meaningful societal change.

Learn More: Impact Measurement

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