Social impact evaluation – five questions to get you started.

The first question that we are inevitably asked when we talk about measuring social impact is “What frameworks do you use for evaluation?”. What underlies this question is an assumption that there is a secret framework that only those in the know have access to – one in which organisations can feed a set of data in and magic up a report. The truth is both more complex and more simple than that. Social impact evaluation needs to be tailored and nuanced. For us, this process starts with a set of five questions. These questions help to frame an approach that make it simple and relevant for all those involved.

1. Why?

The starting point in any social impact evaluation is understanding the drivers behind it. Why is the evaluation being undertaken and how will it help you and your organisation to do better? Are you undertaking the work to better understand and improve your work? Is it to show the value of your work to investors, funders, government, the community? Is it a means to help you to grow and understand how to expand your organisation’s reach, to provide the evidence base for strategic planning?

Perhaps all of the above?

The answer to the question of why will determine our approach and how much to invest in the process.

2. Who will benefit?

Closely connected to the question of why is who. Who are the internal and external stakeholders that are likely to benefit from the impact report? In most cases, marketing or funding teams are amongst the key beneficiaries.

Impact, well articulated and backed up with a strong evidence base, provides the proof point and stories to reach more customers, attain more funding and create even greater impact.

Program teams, from managers to those delivering services at the coalface are another key beneficiary. For organisational leaders, social impact evaluations provide both proof that they are on the right track and the information they need to plan for strategic growth.

Finally, consider how external stakeholders – partners, funders, clients, customers – could benefit from the impact evaluation. All of these stakeholders need to be engaged in the process from the outset so that they can support the process of data collection and analysis, and champion the outcomes to a wider audience. Ideally, they should all be included in an initial co-design process so that the evaluation is informed by and helps address their needs.

3. What resources do you have?

The next question you need to ask is how much money, time and energy you want to spend on social impact evaluation. The question of resources is, or at least it should be, closely tied to the question of why you are conducting social impact evaluation. It is important to consider not just how much resources you have now but also how much you want to invest in impact reporting year in, year out. Resources necessarily dictate the approach we take to creating impact frameworks and conducting the evaluation itself. Whatever your resources, we need to ensure that the process of social impact evaluation is focused on utilising existing processes where possible, so that we maximise the use of existing resources.

4. What are your internal processes and data points?

Impact evaluations often fail because the processes and frameworks for collecting data are not integrated within organisations, or are just too resource intensive for those tasked with collecting the data to engage with it meaningfully. It is therefore important that we understand right at the beginning of the process, how data is currently being collected, what tools are being used (or not used) and how we can use existing processes to facilitate the development of impact framework and ongoing evaluation and reporting. It is likely that you may need to do some additional research to be able to articulate your impact, but often existing data can be analysed and re-framed to provide meaningful narratives.

5. What problem are you trying to solve?

Finally, the process of starting to frame impact starts with one central question (well, really two). What is the problem you are trying to solve and how does your work contribute to solving that problem? Known as a theory of change, these questions provide the tools to understand program logic and enable organisations to map big picture impact against outcomes and outputs. This forms the backbone of any evaluation framework.

The difference between a good and a great impact evaluation is the ability to pull evidence to showcase that impact, and to translate this evidence into a meaningful narrative to stakeholders, both internal and external.

Want to learn more about how to measure your organisation’s impact? Talk to us today.