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Theory behind social impact experiments

Explore impact with social impact experiments: concise controlled methods to gather direct evidence from stakeholders for informed outreach.
Written by
Unmesh Sheth
Published on
December 4, 2021

Social impact experiments offer concise, controlled methods to directly gather evidence of impact from stakeholders, ensuring effective and informed outreach.

In science class, we learn that an experiment is a procedure to test a hypothesis. In the field of impact measurement, we can apply a similar process to understand and grow the impact of social enterprises. These are called social impact experiments. In this article, we will explore:

  • What is a social impact experiment? 
  • Social impact experiment example
  • How to design a social impact experiment?

Social impact experiments are a short and effective way to gather evidence of your immediate impact on your stakeholders.

  • Communicating the social value expected from an investment makes the difference between securing funding and missing a valuable opportunity.
  • Social Impact Experiments is based on a "lean experimentation approach" that maximizes stakeholder value without wasting resources, making it more stakeholder-centric


What is an impact experiment? - Theory of Social Impact

A social impact experiment is a short, time-bound test of your product or services. It allows you to quickly gather evidence of your impact to learn, course-correct, and refine your Theory of Change.

Social impact experiments draw upon concepts across the social science, business, and nonprofit sectors to solve a key challenge for social enterprises. To understand the theory of social impact experiments, we need to take a few pages out of the tech start-up playbook.

theory of social impact
Fig: Impact experiment steps

The purpose of social impact experiments

Impact Measurement is complex. In the field, SoPact has observed many organizations struggling with these challenges:

  • Spending months getting stakeholder alignment
  • Getting bogged down in creating a “perfect” Theory of Change
  • Ending up with too many outcomes and metrics

These challenges cause delays and hinder the forward movement of the organization. Social impact experiments allow organizations to get started with an imperfect Theory of Change, test it on a small scale, and make changes based on client feedback. 

Social impact experiments are based on the idea that organizations learn by doing rather than excessive planning. It is more efficient for an organization to experiment frequently and learn continuously rather than see if a carefully planned Theory of Change worked at the end of the fiscal year.

Inspiration from the tech world

Social impact experiments draw inspiration from “lean” experimentation used by Silicon Valley tech startups. Lean, like Agile and Scrum, is a software development approach. Lean uses a process of small-scale continuous experimentation to deliver maximum user value with minimum resources. The approach is also customer-centric and relies on regular customer surveys and customer satisfaction metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS).

A Lean project might test a basic version of their product in a single school first. Next, it will move on to two schools and, finally, the general public. All the while, project collaborators collect feedback and make changes based on customer input. 

Lean is a fast and efficient way to determine if the market shows a need for your product. This is known as product-market fit. Product-market fit is critical to demonstrate to receive investment.

Social impact experiment example

Social impact experiments are not only for technology products. This process is also applicable to nonprofit or social enterprises.

Imagine your community experiences natural disasters such as floods, fires, and hurricanes. Your organization wants to prepare people for these natural disasters. You have developed a 1-hour training course for the community. Your basic Theory of Change is:

  • You provide a teacher, classroom, and learning materials → Community members attend the 1-hour course → community members are trained → Community members make a plan, and emergency kit → The community is prepared for an emergency

To get started right away, you decided to do a social impact experiment. You teach the courses and train all community members living in one single apartment complex. One month later, you conduct a participant survey to find out if the course was helpful and if they have made an emergency plan. 

The feedback from this participant survey found:

  • Most did not make an emergency plan
  • They are more worried about crime than disasters

This information allows you to go back to your Theory of Change and make modifications so that the stakeholders find value in the course. With this approach, your activities and outputs are more likely to change actual behaviors. 

How to design a social impact experiment

The keys to conducting a social impact experiment are:

  • A Simple Theory of Change
  • A short time frame, 2-4 months
  • A specific objective that is controllable and prioritized by the stakeholder
  • A survey to collect stakeholder feedback

The survey must be well-designed. It must ask the right open-ended questions, mitigate bias, and align with the "five dimensions of impact." You will need a good sample size of respondents. You must also ensure participants are aware of the survey at the outset of the experiment. Have a survey delivery method that is appropriate.

Apply the results of this social impact experiment to modify your Theory of Change and test again.

Impact Workshop Part One - The Five Dimensions of Impact and Theory of  Change - Impact Central
Fig: Five dimensions of impact

Why do we use social impact experiments?

Organizations often get mired in strategic planning. Social impact experiments offer an efficient method to get started and learn by doing. Social impact experiments are a short and effective way to gather evidence of your immediate impact on your stakeholders. This method draws from technology development approaches. It maximizes stakeholder value without wasting resources. SoPact is committed to finding the stakeholder voice in impact measurement.

Read more:

Impact Measurement

How to ask open ended questions

Learn how to ask open-ended questions effectively with our insightful guide. An effective way to learn stakeholder voice.
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