30 July 2020

1. Definition and main steps

What is social impact measurement?

Social impact measurement generally refers to the activity of assessing the effects (or outcomes) of an intervention.

  • The word measure literally means “to determine, to evaluate according to a standard, using an instrument.” In a figurative sense, it can also be seen as a synonym for evaluation.
  • The word impact refers to the results, outcomes, effects or consequences of an action. 
  • The word social generally refers to the consideration of various aspects beyond purely economic considerations.

In practice, social impact measurement refers to a set of practices aimed at describing and demonstrating the changes caused by an activity. Techniques to achieve this goal may involve varying degrees of formalization or scientific rigour, ranging from surveys based on the perceptions of a few participants to longitudinal studies with randomly selected control groups (see randomized controlled trials). Although the correlation is not entirely accurate, a higher level of formalization will generally lead to higher costs.

  • For more information, see the Methods section.

This means that social impact measurement can mean different things depending on who is being addressed. Moreover, we may also refer to the measurement of impacts as impact evaluation.

Impact evaluation refers to a systematic approach to estimating the consequences attributable to an intervention.

Impact evaluation can be situated within a broader set of evaluations that address a variety of issues concerning an organization’s intervention. At TIESS, the latter is usually illustrated using the following logic model.

See an example

Let’s take the hypothetical case of a government program to reduce speeding on roads. The desired impact is the reduction of fatal road crashes. To achieve this, the government invests resources (input) to carry out the activity of designing an awareness campaign. The output produced by this activity are advisories encouraging drivers to reduce their speed. Speed reduction will be the desired immediate outcome. To evaluate the impact of this program, it will therefore be necessary to consider the changes observed as well as the external factors that may have influenced this result.

  • To learn more about the logic model, its components and other terms used, see the Glossary.

Why measure social impact?

There are several reasons why an organization may want to engage in an evaluation process. Among these are: assessing the relevance of an intervention; supporting planning, improving an intervention; supporting accountability; empowering participants; valuing the contribution of employees and volunteers; contributing to the advancement of knowledge; establishing credibility; increasing recognition; and trying to access funding. In some cases, the best option will indeed be to measure social impact. In other situations, however, it may be better to assess needs, activities and short-term results, or even to abstain from undertaking any evaluation at all, focussing instead on planning, communication and marketing.

How to measure one’s social impact?

Several methods, guides and tools suggest approaches to evaluating the impact of a social economy organization. These approaches have several points in common, which can be summarized in several steps.

  1. Define the objectives of the evaluation. Before embarking on an evaluation process, ask yourself why you need it, who it’s for, and what questions you are seeking to respond to. The remainder of the evaluation will depend on the answers to these questions. As a result, this first step is probably the most important one, and hence the one on which you should spend the most time on, especially since this work cannot be outsourced to external experts. It is important to note that organizations being evaluated do not always have full control over the parameters of the evaluation at this stage, since some evaluations are externally imposed.
  1. Choose the method and approach. By approach, we mean, among other things, how you will approach the evaluation and the choices you make regarding the involvement of external stakeholders. The choice of this approach should be derived from your answers to step 1. Of course, you will need to take account of the resources available to you and the time you are willing to invest, and be prepared to revise your goals should they fail to match your means. In most cases, a ready-made method will not do, instead requiring you to build an approach adapted to your context.
  • To learn more about this step, see Methods for measuring social impact

 The exact design of the following steps depends on the objectives, approach, method and resources you choose for the evaluation. Hence, as presented here, they serve only to give you a general idea of what is involved in an impact evaluation.

  1. Identify and involve the stakeholders of the activity to be evaluated. Once you have agreed that an impact evaluation is indeed the type of evaluation you need, you can begin the work by mapping the groups (members, users, funders, partners, staff, etc.) that are likely to be affected by your activity, being either directly affected by the activity or wielding influence over it.
  1. Identify the desired outcomes and corresponding indicators. To measure the outcomes and impacts of your activity, you should ideally develop a “theory of change,” in other words, a picture of the ultimate goals (your mission), the intermediate objectives and the means for achieving them. We refer to these various objectives as the desired outcomes, whose nature varies from one organization to another. The selection of relevant indicators is based on the desired outcomes.

By completing steps 2, 3 and 4, you are designing an evaluation plan. To support you in this task, you can use evaluation templates drawn from the appendixes of an Imagine Canada (2006) guide.

  1. Collect and analyze data. This step consists of documenting the impacts according to the groups and objectives targeted by your action and then analyzing the collected data. The exact methodology, level of formalization and details of this step vary greatly depending on which method you opt for.
  • To learn more about this step, see the Guides section of our selection of relevant resources on the Passerelles platform (in French).
  1. Use the information and reassess the needs. The result of the evaluation you have conducted must serve certain purposes (e.g., improve your activities, gain recognition for your action, make decisions, etc.). Subsequent evaluations and updates may or may not be necessary depending on your needs.

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