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Why measure social impact and how to do it well?

January 25, 2018 - Interviews

For any social business, to ensure biggest social impact possible, it’s crucial to measure the correct things and learn from them. But where do you start and what should you think about?

Social impact measurement is getting more and more attention but the complexity is also the interesting bit and we hear an increasing number of practitioners and businesses exploring and developing routines to measure and improve. In Sweden, SE Forum is part of an informal network exploring the challenges and opportunities of social impact measurement and we met up with one of the founding members of the network, Jenny Fürstenbach, to hear more and get some tips on what to think of when getting started.


Why should a social business measure its social impact and what are the risks if it doesn’t?

Being a social business means that you have objectives other than profit that are key to your mission. Social impact measurements can be your compass in that it can guide you on your way to maximising your organisation’s positive impact. There are several aspects to look at here with the key ones being the importance of ensuring growth, and being able to show your impact to investors and partners. Especially if you’re a social business, it’s crucial to be able to confirm that you’re not just making money, but you’re also having a positive impact on society, both for an external audience as well as to share internally to keep focus and motivation. If you’re looking for maximum impact you need to measure to ensure you’re on the right track. If not, you risk doing the wrong thing, or not being aware of how you should be doing things to reach the right people and improve the lives you intend to. You risk losing focus and the bigger context of why and how you exist as a social business.


What should one think of when embarking on social impact measurement?

Ask the tough questions! Being a social business and thinking that you’re doing good in the world is not enough, you should be aiming higher. How can you reach more people, how can you have greater impact and how do you make sure you’re reaching the right people? To get started there are several tools and frameworks to use. One organisation I am involved in, +Acumen, offers introductory courses on social impact measurement that focus on three aspects: breadth (how many are you reaching?); depth (how much impact are you having on those you reach?); and target group (who are you actually reaching?). These three framing questions work well as starting points, and so does Theory of Change where one needs to establish input, output, outcome and impact in order to connect input with the ultimate impact.


What would you say to someone that is worried about not getting it right?

The most important thing is to do something. Just by creating a very simple, draft Theory of Change for your organisation with your team will give you an opportunity to start thinking about these things and talking about them. Getting started and doing something is more important than getting everything right from the beginning. Social impact measurement often starts with a mindset shift, trying to become a bit better all the time, starting with small steps and then connecting the dots as new questions arise. Finding the numbers (how many have you reached?) is usually easier, whereas understanding the depth of your actual impact is harder to figure out and measure. But starting somewhere, by starting to follow up with at least one person to get their feedback and their story is better than nothing. And again, be humble. You might not know best, and sometimes you just carry on with what you’ve been doing. But by asking the questions you might find that there are better ways of doing things to reach even more people and have even bigger impact.


What’s the future of social impact measurement?

An increasing number of investors require proof of social impact and even though there currently aren’t many standards to follow, these are being explored and developed in many parts of the world at the moment. There is increased pressure externally to see what businesses are doing to increase its positive impact on the planet and its people. More and more businesses will also be sharing the numbers and stories internally to ensure employee retention and a continued passion and interest for what the business is doing and what positive impact it’s having in society.

To reach even further I would say that communication is needed. There is great value in people from different organisations and parts of society having opportunities to discuss these things. We’re seeing great interest from various sectors, where people are engaged and want to explore further, which is why we set up the unofficial network where we meet to discuss, learn, and explore all aspects of social impact measurement. The interest we’re seeing is a great thing as it’ll encourage more people to get involved, aim to do better, and ultimately, create bigger and better social impact!