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Evaluating the Impact of Social Innovation Programs: Issues and the Way Forward

monitoring & evaluation | M&E | social impact measurement tool | Impact Management | Impact Perspectives

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Alan is a social sector consultant and one of the founding directors of Quantica Education, a school of social entrepreneurship in Colombia. Alan has published more than 100 blogs and articles, managed global research projects, & facilitated dozens of workshops for entrepreneurs in Latin and South America.

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Posted on 2018-04-24

A wave of social enterprise excitement has taken hold across the globe. The power of social entrepreneurship to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges has led to an explosion of interest in the difficult quest to balance purpose and profit. Of course, with that interest comes a need for education, especially for those who don’t want to jump fully into entrepreneurship without some training first.

In addition to a bevy of early-stage training and incubator/accelerator options available in the private marketplace, universities have also answered this call. Social innovation and social entrepreneurship program offerings in the United States, for example, have skyrocketed in recent years, including a Changemaker Campus designation (from Ashoka U) for universities that offer this style of education.

Harvard University even received $10 million from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation to initiate a social entrepreneurship fellowship program for their student body.

The university sector, however, has not caught up to the growth of their own programs in terms of tracking the effectiveness of that education. In other words, how many of their students went on to become successful social entrepreneurs or social innovators? How does one even measure that success?

And a more intriguing question, what impact have those former students created through their endeavors, which can then be traced to the fact that they went through a certain program?

That impact journey, as always, is deep and nuanced. There is a lot to discover and a lot of data to be leveraged for these university programs. In large part, it’s not happening. Let’s look at what’s missing for such educators and why it is important to find it.

Obstacles to Impact Insights

No doubt many of these social innovation and entrepreneurship programs have one or more classes on data and the importance of measuring impact. Any social entrepreneur has had the importance of impact measurement drilled into their brain over and over again.

On the other hand, university and program administrators likely have not. Nor do they possess teams and resources at their disposal to make such tracking an efficient, value-adding process for their organizations. At Sopact, we have talked with many such universities and understand their needs. We’ve identified four key issues these institutions face in data management and program evaluation execution:

1. They are collecting data but not enough to discover and leverage insights

The issue: Most programs track only high-level data, simple outputs, which they use in reporting and marketing materials. These data could include: number of graduates, number of registered companies created or rate of employment, etc.

What’s needed: Deeper metrics. What kind of impact are graduates creating in the world? How effective is our mentorship network? What’s working really well or what’s not working well in terms of getting our graduates investment opportunities? Deeper insights towards these questions come from being able to assess a greater variety of metrics and having the tools to do so. Programs need such tools, tools which make the dive into deep impact data feasible. Because with these insights programs can improve themselves and become more competitive in the increasingly crowded marketplace of social entrepreneurship training.

2. They don’t have the resources for deeper data collection

The issue: They are generally aware that the more data they collect and the more detailed they get, the better they can evaluate their programs. However, because existing tools have a high-learning curve, they feel they cannot go deeper in a cost-effective way.

What’s needed: On one level, there is a need to train people skilled in evaluating impact data, as argued in this SSIR article. That’s obviously a longer term solution. In the more immediate present, educators and administrators need data management tools specifically tailored to their impact needs. This means tools that were designed for changemakers. This could mean they have comprehensive data metrics databases or built-in report-making capabilities, or any number of impact-focused features that are certainly not in the usual Excel program.

3. Lack of incentives for alumni/respondents

The issue: Incentivizing beneficiaries to provide data is an issue across the impact sector. The largest roadblock in the case of social innovation programs is that we are asking respondents for time, time which they probably don’t have (especially if they are entrepreneurs).

What’s needed: One easy way to motivate better response rates is streamlining how respondents receive the request and how easy it is for them to navigate (for example, an online survey). On the back-end, on the evaluator side, that data needs to be stored in a way that reduces or eliminates the need to “clean it up” and allows it to be shared easily. That includes sharing results with those beneficiaries so you can tell them how their data helped and what exciting things you are going to do with it! That’s a great way to incentivize for better future response rates.

4. Lack of cloud-based data management tools

The issue: They key here is that administrators, program evaluators, deans, marketing directors, etc. have a need to access, manage and utilize impact data. Any tool therefore needs to be easy-to-use, accessible and leveraged across departments, or even between organizations. At least it will be most effective for all involved if it can achieve that.

What’s needed: Cloud-based applications have pushed their way into all sectors and across cultures. Their benefits are obvious. But a cloud-based tool focused on the impact sectors’ need to manage, track, and report impact data, particularly across teams and partner organizations, remains a glaring gap. Such a tool would allow more seamless transfer and management of data because it would be housed in one place, and simply accessed via different accounts. Each player in the ecosystem would then be able to access and leverage that data according to their needs and expertise.

Working towards the solution

The issues and the needs are clear, and once solved will help program evaluators, from Berkeley to Harvard, extract deeper and more meaningful insights from the changemakers they are claiming to educate. It will allow them to back up such claims, attract more capital for their programs, and of course, enable prospective students to more adequately make decisions about which programs are right for them.

At Sopact, we are listening to these educators to further define the issues they face and how we might work together to solve them. If you would like to learn more about how we are doing this and how we may be able to serve you, please contact us today.

 

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