Does It Count, If You Don't Count It? The Future of Social Impact Measurement

November 23, 2017 Charlie Davenport

Outcomes. Impact. Results. In the for-profit world, all are key to the long-term viability and health of an organisation. Today, in the giving sector, we are seeing the same concepts around performance and measuring outcomes take center stage. 

But as the conversation around best practices for results-focused giving continues to gain traction and the ability to demonstrate the results of giving becomes more important, organisations and individuals across the philanthropic spectrum, from foundations to non-profits to corporations, to the individual change agents that support them, are struggling to define a common language for performance measurement and reporting. 

While that language may not yet exist, players across the giving sector can agree that being able to demonstrate social impact involves many of the same elements as good storytelling.

Needless to say, the power of good storytelling has been a feature of politics, business, and our dinner tables for as long as any of us can remember. That's because the best stories get to the heart of their subject and leave the listener feeling moved — whether to act, reflect, or investigate the subject matter. And while a story focused on a single individual, if told well, can grab our attention, when the story relates to something bigger or greater than ourselves, it is even more powerful.

Across the giving sector, we see champions for social good who understand that strong stories, powerfully told, can make a difference. Non-profits, foundations, and corporations alike are harnessing the power of storytelling to share the impact of their work, to draw people to their mission, and to inspire action. But once social impact begins to be viewed through a storytelling lens, it becomes clear that crafting a compelling story about impact starts with a focus on measurable results. In other words, a donation or giving campaign that doesn't lead to the measurement and reporting of results is like a story without an ending. 

Consider the following statements: "The XY Foundation vaccinated three hundred children children"; or "The XY Foundation’s vaccination program reached three hundred children and led to a 50 percent reduction in instances of measles in the region." When organizations can track, measure, and share the results of their efforts in terms of the value being delivered, their story becomes much more powerful.

A year ago, the United Nations announced seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as a way to "stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet." The SDGs include goals to end poverty, hunger, ensure inclusive and quality education, gender equality, clean water, and more. If each foundation, non-profit, and corporate donor could track the results of their donations, efforts, and partnerships and map them back to one of the SDGs, think how many powerful stories the giving sector would be able to tell. And powerful, compelling stories are what inspire donors to provide more resources to advance social and environmental goals.

The first step in helping the giving community track results and create powerful stories is to settle on an agreed-upon taxonomy. With a sector-sourced (and continuously growing) lexicon of outcomes and output measurements, a common language will enable those who are already successful in achieving impact to share their best practices while giving those who are just starting out on their outcomes journey the ability to more easily jump in. Standardised measurement and reporting also will lead to greater transparency so that all involved in changemaking efforts can see exactly where resources are going. 

For individual organisations in the giving sector, the measurement journey begins with understanding where you are and where you hope to end up. Whether your organisation is just starting out, has developed some competence, or has arrived at a completely integrated stage of measurement proficiency, a thorough understanding of your goals, objectives, strengths, and weaknesses is essential to the successful execution of your outcomes measurement framework. 

As outcomes measurement in the field becomes more sophisticated, the organisations best poised for success will be the ones positioned to capture and use results data to build strong impact stories. Find out where your organisation falls on the spectrum of outcomes maturity today, and begin the journey toward a more impactful tomorrow. 

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