Q&A best bits – A guide to measuring social impact

Q&A best bits – A guide to measuring social impact

Nick Petrie, The Guardian
01.12.10

 

Struggling to measure your social impact – and find relevance in the results? Our panel experts explain that, first, you have to be asking the right questions

 

Jenni Inglis

 

Jenni Inglis is as an independent consultant working as an accredited Social Return On Investment practitioner and director of the SROI Network.

 

To get started proving your social impact: Start with a small discrete project and practice applying the SROI principles and methodology. You can always learn and improve something about how you measure social value to inform internal management decisions without producing a full SROI report. There’s plenty of further advice and guidance on SROI Network website, including details of training and membership: www.thesroinetwork.org

 

We need to change the questions we are asking: A lot of social enterprises are used to having to look for evidence to meet the requirements of funders, trying to show how they are meeting some set of policy targets or whether they’re delivering against their own objectives.
Improving our understanding of value requires that we ask open questions about what changes as a result of our activities and make judgments about the data we get back.

 

Asking the right kind of questions takes some practice, as does listening to the results, and getting used to making judgments is sometimes uncomfortable for people. However these are skills that can be learned and the more practice there is out there, the easier it will become for those that follow in future.

 

Susan Steed

 

Susan Steed is a researcher in the Valuing What Matters team at the New Economics Foundation thinktank. She works on several projects that use the principles of SROI to encourage commissioners to make decisions based on a triple bottom line.

 

Understanding what social impact is is not the problem, evidencing it is: Social impact in itself isn’t something that is difficult to understand. In fact I think that frontline staff and users often understand this better than anyone else. The growing dominance of social value in commissioners minds means that they might start asking the right questions, which put social enterprises on a more level playing field.

 

What is more challenging is around evidencing this impact through outcomes data, and again this doesn’t need specialist skills but does require putting good collection processes. For reporting impact using a tool like SROI then you do need analytical skills – but the main challenge is being able to evidence impact through good outcomes data.

 

Bev Meldrum

 

Bev Meldrum is a researcher at the Accounting and Accountability in Africa research unit at the University of Cape Town. She is currently undertaking research into social impact measurement in social enterprises based in the townships of Cape Town.

 

Social enterprise needs to be one step ahead: The sector will be in a much stronger position if we, as organisations, can get ahead of the game and design strategies for measuring our social impact that are meaningful to us, rather than wait for commissioners to tell us what they think we should be measuring.

 

What we want to avoid is commissioners setting the agenda for what they want to measure in terms of social impact – particularly if they don’t understand completely how your organisation works or what social impact or social value actually looks like.

 

You must adjust your approach depending on your size: The thing to remember is that how you measure your social impact will look very different to how a large, well-established social enterprise will measure it. You need to look at what is appropriate to your organisation as it is now, and what the important things you want to measure are. As your organisations grows, the measurement of your social impact will expand and become more complex.

 

I would say what’s the one thing that would benefit you and your organisation – measuring now. Start there, and then over time develop and expand.

 

Ceri Jones

 

Ceri Jones is head of policy and research at the Social Enterprise Coalition and leads on all areas of policy development work, including public service delivery particularly focusing on health and social care. 

 

Do not allow definitions to confine your thinking: There is no one agreed definition of social value – and many actors across the social enterprise spectrum would agree that there shouldn’t in fact be one, as this could stifle innovation and creativity. For example, aligning tick-box outcomes with "value" presuppose that ideas have been tried and tested, which may then disincentivise new and potentially more effective approaches.

 

Commissioners need more support in making good choices: In terms of the degree of flexibility within applications, it should be remembered that commissioning and procurement are very varied processes and can involve projects of different scale and scope, for example. anything from commissioning a small local service to a fleet of helicopters for the RAF.

 

As such, commissioners themselves need to be adequately supported in recognising the range of services that social enterprise can deliver and in understanding social value so that it can work in their context. So far, recognition of the need for this support seems to be experiencing a bit of a gap. If this support was mandatory and robust, it would not only reinforce the language of social enterprise and the mandate to procure from/commission social enterprises, but would also help commissioners assess bids on a case by case basis.

 

Colin Crooks

 

Colin Crooks is CEO and founder of 10-year-old Green-Works – a social enterprise that prevents commercial furniture from being sent to landfill.

 

Present evidence of your social impact in a dynamic way: The information provided has to bring the benefits to life. I agree the power of stories and pictures is critical to bringing SROI to life. The data that underpins the stories needs to be simple but robust. That said it can be a lot of data if you have multiple impacts as Kate Markey suggests. We train people, divert from landfill, supply charities with low-cost equipment and export equipment to Africa. To measure the impact of all those streams could be quite a complex and exhausting exercise.

 

Kate Markey

 

Kate Markey has been Community Action Network’s deputy chief executive since 2008. She leads on CAN’s investment and business support services through CAN Invest and CAN Engage, its corporate engagement programmes.

 

When you start out measuring, keep it focused: Measuring social value doesn’t have to be expensive. You can start with one project within your organisation or you can also (following SROI methodology) commit for measuring forecast social impact. Forecast SROI can be particularly useful for start-ups and a quicker process committing to what you are going to deliver and the non-financial value you aim to create.

 

You must find a way to present to a range of investors: Organisations must find a simple, consistent and transparent way of measuring their social impact as start-ups or mid-size. The challenge is finding a methodology that is accepted by multiple stakeholders, commissioners, investors, grant-funders and so on. 

 

Peter MacCafferty

 

Peter MacCafferty is managing director of Cúnamh ICT developers of Social Impact Tracker – an application designed by and for community and voluntary organisations or other social enterprises to capture and report multi-project monitoring data.

 

Maintaining flexibility is important: No single approach (SROI or social auditing, for example) will work for everyone. Much will depend of the organisations type, make-up, size, time and budgets, plus a 100 other factors. Flexibility is key and trial and error often the case. Using tools to aid this process is very helpful, but understanding the basics should pre-date any such application. Some funders are asking groups to measure something that has no relation to what they do or understand, so this will ultimately backfire.

 

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