Social impact assessment is a rapidly evolving practice. As a result, no matter if your organization is starting out or if it's been around for over 30 years, chances are your impact assessment process (if you have one) lacks the consistency of both data and messaging.
While some members of your staff may know the names of every beneficiary you serve, they might not know the Vision or Mission. Challenges like this make the concept of a formidable impact report feel like a possibility only in the distant future. Indeed, the process of establishing the framework, the metrics, the data tracking tools, the waiting, collection of data, analysis of data - all before it's possible to publish your impact report. What a process! However, it does not just work and waiting - you can plunge into the waters of social impact assessment with the assurance that as the process evolves, starting week one, new elements of your reporting needs will be unearthed as you go. This article will talk you through navigating the limbo world of social impact reporting in the time before the indicators' data is aggregated for analysis. What follows is how to make this period productive and enable you to communicate elements of your evolving impact story as the process unfolds...
Social Impact Assessment Starts With
Typically impact reports cover three areas:
(1) Impact Framework
(2) Assessment Results
(3) Performance Evaluation.
- Impact Framework: An outlined method for a social impact assessment that explains:
- the organization's reasons for measuring the impact
- the documentation of the impact hypothesis (AIM Volume 1: Groundwork)
- Mission, Vision, Goals
- Program Design
- Theory of Change
- and how they measure the impact
- The metrics used - custom or standard (IRIS, Guidestar, etc.)
- the tools for forms/surveys and data management (TurboMetrics Impact Cloud; Salesforce)
- Whom they are collecting the data from
- the data reporting frequency, etc.
- Assessment Results
- data visualization and demonstration for quick insights
- Performance Evaluation
- causality and other contextual support narratives
You'll notice that while the last two are necessary for a completed evaluative report, the first offers great insights into an organization's impact hypothesis. Effectively demonstrating this hypothesis alongside a roadmap for data collection for analysis impacts communication in its own right.
Start with Social Impact Measurement Framework
Here's a quick tale of two cities: the first was dreamt up with a clear vision that was well communicated. This allowed for strategic planning. The infrastructure and city development, built from the ground-up, evolved into a beautifully efficient community. The second, a city built organically over time - subject to the whims of a diverse array of mayors and stakeholders, grew into a large and clumpy conglomerate of traffic and inequity.
When it comes to building your impact framework, starting your assessment journey, you can follow the first city's design - even if your organization is nowhere near new. However, it is just as powerful to have a well-established impact framework that nods to the organization's history (no matter how inconsistent a story it is) while outlining a definitive impact hypothesis alongside a way forward. You can make the data waiting period a productive one - building out the documentation for your organization's historical context and impact framework. This clarity in vision will be a bold cornerstone of supporting narrative once the data does roll in for assessment and demonstration.
Of the three areas of an impact report identified above, one of those sections (Impact Framework) does not require data analysis. Nonetheless, it is a fundamental piece of your impact story. In some cases, the ability to speak to your approach toward impact moving forward can open up unexpected doors for engagement with potential funders. That was the case with one of our asset managers and social businesses (investment). To embark on the journey of developing your own impact framework, take a look at Actionable Impact Management (AIM), a series of guidebooks discovering and documenting your framework.
Communicating Part I: Your Impact Framework
So, you've got your framework in place. Now what? Knowing where to put it starts by understanding your framework's value and why people are interested. By explaining your impact framework, you engage your stakeholders (donors, beneficiaries, board, staff, public) transparently - looping them into your practices and processes. It is a credibility-building exercise.
- Social Media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Images of your Theory of Change
- Links to your impact framework webpage
- your Vision and Mission statements
- Inbound Marketing Approach: Blogs
Communicating Part II: Your History
What if you've been around for 50 years? How do you introduce a new way forward while giving due credit to where you've been? As we mentioned in the opening of this article - impact assessment is a RAPIDLY evolving field. Few - if any - can boast a consistent and comprehensive impact measurement strategy over their history. So be a little forgiving and embrace your historical assessments.
- Story Highlights
- Timeline Review
- "Our Story" - the origins of your organization
- Social Media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
- Photos with story highlights
- Links to your timeline and story highlights webpages.
- Trivia-like messages about your organization's history
- Inbound Marketing Approach: Blogs
- The story of your organization's founding
- Highlighting stories from the archives of beneficiaries, donors, previous programs/activities
Anything with recurring structures catches the eye of technology enthusiasts as an opportunity. At SoPact, we caught on to the recurrence of impact storytelling and its intrinsic coupling with data management. That is how the Impact Cloud was born. The software platform manages the data collection, aggregation, and analysis for impact storytelling. We noticed the importance of demonstrating all of the primary components of impact reports mentioned earlier: (1) Impact Framework; (2) Assessment Results; (3) Performance Evaluation. The recurring structures embedded within each have evolved into layouts of what we call 'impact cards.' In the system, each impact card contains a layout demonstrative of the information it is conveying (from Theory of Change to data assessment results).
These cards are automatically updated as new data comes in and can be easily downloaded and placed on anything from postcards for donors to websites, emails, reports - and the list goes on. As we move out of Phase One's Impact Framework, and the data does start streaming in, it's helpful to have an enduring process already in place. If you want to check out Impact Cloud, we're always happy to chat.
There's a common Catch-22 in the social impact assessment or social impact measurement field.
Funders often choose metrics based on the varying capacity of grantees. Paired with the limited data-capacity faced by funders themselves, this results in assessments that only capture the data world's low-hanging fruit.
In other words, it translates into the selection of easy-to-measure activity- or output- focused metrics.
In this article, we'll further explore why this tendency is so pervasive, how it works against the goals of a social impact assessment, and what we can do about it.
Whether you find yourself on the funder side, the asset side (social enterprises, etc.), or somewhere in between, by the end of this article, you'll better understand how to avoid the primary social impact assessment pitfall and will be armed with the tools necessary to do so successfully.
Why Your Social Impact Assessment Questionnaire is Failing
A social impact assessment ostensibly tells us how well a program or intervention is performing to achieve impact outcomes.
And yet, our view is that most assessments fail because they too often focus on outputs that have occurred instead of getting at outcomes.
Outputs are, of course, easily measured. Your questionnaire for program managers or beneficiary liaisons might include:
- How many hours of training were delivered
- How many people were served
- How many products are being used by beneficiaries? These imply impact but do not demonstrate it.
And these metrics hold little strategic value for the grantees, especially if they are only measured for a short period.
And so, a stigma has evolved around the trustworthiness of the data received and how helpful what we're calling 'measurement and evaluation' really is to discern the impactful results of our interventions. With such little regard for the practice, there is little incentive to invest in improving the process, and so, here we are in a Catch-22 of activity-driven (i.e., output-driven) measurement.
Read More - Is collective impact evaluation the future of social impact assessment?
Is Outcome-Driven Social Impact Assessment Worth the Effort?
Something wonderful happens when an organization decides to have an outcome-driven social impact measurement process. They begin to reassess their impact framework more critically than ever before. That's because, to build an enduring practice for impact measurement, an organization must have a well-developed impact foundation to guide it through the metrics selection. This starts with their Vision statement and moves through their Theory of Change.
What we've found is that some of our clients were missing elements of this impact framework. The ability (for the first time) to measure for results facilitates an internal conversation around the broader impact hypothesis, and the organization is left with more established impact messaging.
The benefits of results-driven evaluation go beyond the structuring of an organization's impact framework. It includes the strategic insights gained from a better understanding of the outcomes of your interventions. Armed with such insights, your organization is better able to iterate the process. And when built upon a solid foundation that includes a thoughtful Theory of Change, an organization is more aware of its assumptions and potential risk areas. With an outcome-oriented approach, measurement and evaluation become a pivotal element of your organization's strategic decisions. With the ability to more confidently speak to your interventions' specific results, your marketing and donor relations will also benefit.
Read More - The potential social and economic returns of collective impact.
Improved Social Impact Measurement Processes
One phrase that pops up again and again in the unfortunate cycle is "data capacity." If we might be able to enhance our own capacity and that of our partners, perhaps we will take on more challenging metrics that offer more strategic insights. Once the data's value becomes apparent, its positive impact on programming, marketing, donor relations, and grant-seeking leads to better staff engagement with the data reporting, especially if reporting becomes more user-friendly.
Impact Cloud™ was designed to be accessible and thorough, flexible enough to meet various socially-minded organizations' data needs. And it starts with a well-developed impact framework. Actionable Impact Management begins with the introspective work of defining a Vision, Mission, and Goals; Program Structure; and Theory of Change before moving on to selecting metrics and your data strategy.
The transformation from activity or output metrics to outcome metrics can mean all the difference in buy-in. By strengthening data capacity, funders can make that transformation a reality.
Read More: How can we improve social impact accounting?