Social impact measurement: Timeline

Interest in social impact and its measurement may seem recent, but the concept actually has a long and complex history. As a result, the terms in use and the methods employed tend to change depending on the geography and sector of activity of those interested in the issue. In order to help you to understand this, TIESS proposes a timeline which presents several periods during which different “cultures” (geographical and professional) have addressed this theme.

Long version of the introduction

The notion of social impact measurement, although it seems to be gathering more attention in Quebec and Canada in recent years, has a relatively long and complex history. The terms used to describe it and what they mean vary greatly depending on the “cultures” that use them. “Cultures” in the sense of countries or nations (France, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Quebec) but also, and above all, “cultures” in the sense of sectors of activity or academic disciplines that mobilize the notion in question: evaluation, philanthropy, community action, solidarity finance, impact investment, cooperative movement, sustainable development, etc. These intersections and confrontations give rise to a profusion of terms that overlap and sometimes change meaning from one translation to another, from one culture to another: utilité sociale, impact assessment, social balance sheet, social accounting, impact evaluation and, of course, social impact measurement.

While a series of summary sheets, available in the Methods section, is intended to reflect this diversity of trends by outlining several approaches in use, this text is intended to offer readers a step back and thus situate the buzz for impact measurement in a much more global historical context. Far from being exhaustive, this section nonetheless helps to answer some important questions: where does this interest in social impact measurement come from? How has it manifested itself in practices throughout history? What political and ideological issues underlie these practices?

On this page, you will find a timeline that recounts several episodes related to the evolution of interest in social impact evaluation and measurement for “social purpose organizations” (that is, pursuing a mission other than profit profit). It is designed to be easy to approach, giving a quick overview of the subject. However, to fully appreciate it, it is best to already have a good understanding of the basic principles of evaluation, covered in the other sections of this web portal.

1900 to today

Evaluating government action in Canada and the Western world

It was with the rise of the welfare state that evaluation emerged as an academic discipline. Even today, the notion of social impact measurement owes much to the jargon developed in the world of evaluation.

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1950 to today

Social and environmental accounting

The idea of social and environmental accounting took many forms in the second half of the 20th century. This trend developed notably in France with the Bilan Sociétal and in the United Kingdom with Social Accounting and Auditing.

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1960 to today

Contribution of international development: Randomized controlled trials and outcome mapping

International development actors have a great interest in knowing the impact of their interventions. The field offers a wide variety of approaches. Some development economists propose to measure the impact of an intervention using experimental methods.

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1970 to today

Contribution of the areas of sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

Since the 1970s, major economic development projects have sought to mitigate their negative social impacts from a sustainable development perspective. In recent decades, life cycle assessment (LCA) has made it possible to document the impact of a product or service more rigorously.

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1975 to 2015

Evaluation of social usefulness

Throughout history, social economy enterprises have not only been the subject of evaluations, they have also been the initiators of new practices that correspond more closely to their realities and aspirations. The evaluation of social usefulness (utilité sociale) movement, better known in France, is one such experiment.

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1995 to 2005

Evaluation of autonomous community action in Quebec

Community action in Quebec has developed its own approach to evaluation over the last few decades. The Manuel d’évaluation participative et négociée (Gaudreau and Lacelle, 1999a) is a good example of this practice. It is generally centered on the priorities and needs of the organization, in a perspective of learning and improvement rather than impact measurement.

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1995 to 2010

Influence of the Anglo-Saxon philanthropic world

Beginning in the late 1990s, major American foundations proposed measuring the social return on their investments, paving the way for a new “revolutionary” market: impact investing.

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1996 to 2006

Community-based research and social economy networks in Quebe

The first decade following the 1996 Summit on the Economy and Employment was a period of intense reflection on the theme of evaluating the then booming social economy in Quebec. This reflection took place particularly at UQAM, as part of the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA), and at CSMO-ÉSAC.

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2005 to today

Social finance and impact investing

Impact investing has become very popular in the last decade. To fulfill its promise, this new financial sector must be able to measure social performance against a common benchmark. Methods to achieve this are still being tested.

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2006 to today

Recent Canadian Initiatives

Over the past 15 years, several initiatives related to social impact measurement and evaluation have been developed in Canada. On this page, we introduce the experiences of the Demonstrating Value, Co-operative Difference and Co-operative Performance Indicators projects, as well as the approaches of Social Value Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), the Ontario government, TIESS, the S4ES (Mission. Model. Measure.) consortium and the Common Approach Project.

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Conclusion: Measuring social impact today

Nowadays, everyone seems to be talking about impact, social impact and impact measurement. For Reisman et al (2015), evaluation and social impact measurement are two currents that have evolved in parallel for decades and are now called upon to engage in dialogue in order to enrich each other. This timeline underscores the complexity of this history. The interest in impact measurement emerges from a great diversity of experiences and cultures, each of which has its own vocabulary, preconceptions, values and objectives, and which are indeed called upon to talk to each other more, but also to preserve some of their specificities. The challenge for the social economy in Quebec and Canada is therefore to synthesize these experiences in order to collectively build a way of evaluating that meets the needs and expectations of the ecosystem. The TIESS project, by producing material on this issue, aims to participate in this collective construction by feeding into and clarifying the terms of the discussion.

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The following individuals contributed to the development of this timeline by reviewing the content of certain sections, and we thank them for their time and expertise:

Lynda Binhas, chargée de projet – recherche et analyse, Comité sectoriel de main-d’œuvre de l’économie sociale et de l’action communautaire (CSMO-ESAC)

Marie J. Bouchard, professeure, Département d’organisation et ressources humaines, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Marie-Andrée Caron, professeure, Département des sciences comptables, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Émilien Gruet, conseiller en transfert, Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire (TIESS)

Jean-Marc Fontan, professeur, Département de sociologie, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Sylvain Lefèvre, professeur, Département de stratégie, responsabilité sociale et environnementale, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Suggested Quote

Salathé-Beaulieu, G. (2018). Evaluation and impact measurement in the social economy: Timeline. Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire (TIESS). Retrieved from: