Why the social can’t be taken out of "Social Impact measurement"

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How to measure the true outcome of social impact

Many businesses are moving away from focusing on outputs and instead becoming savvier about outcomes measurement across their operations. To do this, businesses are drawing on a variety of measurement traditions including accounting, economics, clinical research and sociology.

Together these disciplines make an unlikely alliance under the banner of social impact measurement and reporting.

As businesses seek to measure social impact at scale, they often favour objective methodologies and shy away from what they perceive to be the murky world of subjective social experiences. Often this is driven by a false belief that objective numbers offer more certainty and their interpretation involves less assumptions.

When it comes to the social realm of outcomes measurement, the famous quote of “lies, damned lies, and statistics” could not be more relevant. That is, investing $20m in a community project does not necessarily assure any of those funds reach the intended beneficiaries, and handing out 100 diplomas doesn’t tell you whether anyone learnt something new.

To determine social outcomes, it is fundamental that stakeholders are involved in the design, measurement, and validation of social indicators.

The benefits of engaging, even co-producing impact evaluations with stakeholders are profound. The more you put in, the stronger your analysis will be, and the more you will get back in terms of enthusiasm and commitment from those involved.

In conducting stakeholder engagement in impact evaluations, you can:

  • Better measure what matters
  • Capture unintended outcomes
  • Justify added value
  • Grasp how much people value your work

Key steps to planning and collecting meaningful social impact data

1. Scope

Identifying who has experienced change as a result of your work is the most difficult and important step in a social impact analysis. Use the principle of materiality to make your engagement more manageable. Figure out which stakeholders:

  • Experience the most relevant changes as a result of your work, and which
  • Experience the largest, most significant changes.

Try creating a long-list and then narrowing it down. If you are still left with a sprawling list then it might be a sign that you need to break down the scope of your analysis further. For example, if you are looking at the social impact of an electronics supply chain, you might choose to focus on the hotspot stage of mineral extraction and leave assemblage of the products to a separate analysis and engagement plan.

2. Represent

The next step should be to engage face-to-face with a sample of these individuals to understand the outcomes they have experienced. Careful consideration of the size and variability within your group should be taken. To make life simpler ask:

  • Do we already meet with suitable representatives of this group as part of existing operations? For example through a forum or committee.
  • Are those who are accessible to us able to adequately represent the range of experiences those in this stakeholder group experience? If not, why not supplement with targeted phone calls or interviews.
  • Is the right person conducting the engagement? Try to find someone relatable with the right language and cultural skills to host face-to-face sessions.

2. Represent

The next step should be to engage face-to-face with a sample of these individuals to understand the outcomes they have experienced. Careful consideration of the size and variability within your group should be taken. To make life simpler ask:

  • Do we already meet with suitable representatives of this group as part of existing operations? For example through a forum or committee.
  • Are those who are accessible to us able to adequately represent the range of experiences those in this stakeholder group experience? If not, why not supplement with targeted phone calls or interviews.
  • Is the right person conducting the engagement? Try to find someone relatable with the right language and cultural skills to host face-to-face sessions.

3. Open data

It is critical to allow stakeholders to share their experiences in their own words. Qualitative research should be designed to encourage participants to open-up and lead conversations. This might be in the form of:

  • A participatory focus group or workshop
  • Interviews
  • Open-text questionnaires
  • Shadowing people
  • Open ended questions on social media

4. Closed data

Once you know what outcomes are taking place you need to find appropriate measures. There are a number of off-the- shelf metrics and indicators you can use to gather quantitative data. These could be Government metrics of GRI lists. Some will provide you with key opportunities to baseline data, for example on Human Rights performance. Make sure you run indicators past your stakeholders to ensure they interpret them in the intended way.

When it comes to questionnaires, it is acceptable to insert their own words or design indicators from scratch.

5. Analyse

Keep stakeholder representative involved in the analysis of data, especially if you are building models that involve assumptions.

For example, ask your stakeholders to interpret why there have been improvements in working conditions but not health for example. Or ask a consumer group why there is greater awareness of environmental issues but little change in habit.

6. Deliver

Use the findings to feed back into your delivery systems. Minimise harm and maximise shared value. This is where deep stakeholder engagement will pay back, as those involved will be more aware of what is effective and more determined to see your programme or business succeed.

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