How are you measuring your social impact?

Posted on 10 May 2018

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

There are some big players in the world of social impact reporting, with think tanks and technology companies vying to solve one of the toughest problems we face: how can organisations measure their social worth?

Yet despite growing demands for organisations to demonstrate their effectiveness, studies such as Infoxchange’s annual Digital Technology in the Not-for-profit Sector reveals average spending by not-for-profits on software– including the client management systems critical to evaluation – remains at about $4800 per staffer (and just NZ$3400 across the Tasman Sea).

That’s a little more than a third of the spending of the corporate sector, with bigger companies now spending upwards of $12,000 per staff member.

As funders shift towards impact-focused investment, many not-for-profits are becoming more aware of that resource gap. In response, some grantmakers – such as the Ian Potter Foundation – are now paying for evaluation as part of their grant funding.

But they remain in the minority, with our most recent Grants in Australia survey showing that while 60% of large not-for-profits say grantmakers are demanding increased outcomes measurement, reporting and evaluation, only 12% are winning funding for the purpose.

Clearly, the grantmaking sector must respond.

Our Community’s Innovation Lab is among organisations developing better methods for measuring social outcomes, focusing specifically on the need of grantmakers to apply a systematic approach to assessing the aggregated impact of many different funded programs and organisations.

Of course, we’re not the only ones, and this edition is dedicated to examining tools, methods and case studies showing how grantmakers can do better to assess impact.

Meanwhile, we’re putting the final touches to our grantmaker conference, August 23-24. The theme? Prepare for Impact.

The six impact dimensions as outlined in Stanford's Impact Compass white paper. Source:

What tools are available?

But as the measurement methods come under the microscope themselves, with competition helping drive improvements, what are some of the tools out there?

Stanford Center for Innovation’s “Impact Compass” for instance, employs six sensible measures, and some key provisos, to give a deceptively simple answer to an extremely tricky proposition.

Those measures look at

  • Social value
  • Effectiveness
  • Impact
  • Scalability
  • Mission alignment
  • Governance

Scores range up to the 700s for a project that triggers social transformation, while something over 40 may indicate a worthy project. Proven failure, negative social results or unethical principles will trigger a zero score.

Coming up with the right measures, though, to place your project on that scale presents a bigger challenge.

That’s where you might turn to Australia’s own Centre for Social Impact, which produced its own “compass”. Called The Compass: Your Guide to Social Impact Measurement, the guide examines the language of measurement, the types of measurement available, and the challenges of choosing a system.

It explains that you may choose a “theory-driven” evaluation; an “integrated performance and accountability” model; or a cost vs outcomes structure.

Each evaluation model employs different methods, and will bring different results.

The guide includes a checklist to help users to work through some of the trickier aspects of establishing an evaluation model and process, and to avoid some of the pitfalls.

Now, assuming you’ve chosen an approach, a methodology and more, which application are you going to use to record your information and generate the results?

Once again, there are many options to choose from. We’ve mentioned a few below, but there are sure to be many more.

Global, Aussie players vie for social measurement market

Built on the Salesforce platform, Socialsuite is aimed directly at not-for-profits and community service organisations wanting to measure the impact of their programs and services.

Socialsuite recently struck a major deal with disability services provider Scope to measure outcomes for disability services via MiSO (Measuring Impact and Service Outcomes), a framework developed with Scope’s research.

One of the world’s biggest players is Social Solutions, a US-based firm serving 18,000 organisations with a suite of products from the entry-level Apricot to the enterprise-level ETO (Efforts to Outcomes) platform.

Among its features, ETO connects outcomes and a case management system and uses a series of “preconfigured” programs for different types of organisations.

ETO was able, for instance, to match weather patterns to kids missing school, to discover that the truants were just trying to avoid walking to school in the rain. Partner organisations helped provide umbrellas and attendance rates rose.

Another giant firm, the $US5-billion-valued Blackbaud, has struck a deal with Social Solutions to allow it to use the ETO system in its products.

Closer to home, another application, CultureCounts, was developed by the Western Australian Government, after it commissioned research to measure the value of arts and culture.

It offers features such as real-time monitoring, multiple collection methods, data capture, and dashboards particularly aimed at arts organisations, libraries, and place-based groups such as waterfront precincts or university campuses.

The system is now in use by more than 300 organisations, including in the UK, US and Asia, and “captures feedback from the public, peer-assessors and self-assessors, on the quality and impact of places, events, services and experiences.”

The system also matches measures of cultural, social and economic value with government policy objectives.

A newer measurement tool targets social enterprises, and also follows research in Western Australia, this study finding small social enterprises struggled to report on performance.

The resulting Social Enterprise Reporting Tool (SERT) combines both financial and social outcomes reporting into a free online tool.

Still in beta testing, the project is being driven by the Centre for Social Impact from its Swinburne University base.

Dr Chris Mason, the SERT lead, said, “Research shows many social enterprises are struggling to meet the balance of their reporting requirements, in part because their mission is two-fold: financial sustainability and social impact.”

The founder and director of the Perth-based social enterprise Befriend, Nick Maisey, said the tool pooled financial reporting with social impact measurement, and would help track progress.

“Having a structured approach to strengthen our ability to track changes in both social impact and financial health over time is a vital step in helping social enterprises flourish,” said Mr Maisey.

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