In his recent blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation refers to impact investing as a “dog’s breakfast” (definition: “a mess of scraps”). The blog generated considerable discussion among our research assistants (thank you, Kevin!) and had us wondering how much of the muddle regarding impact investing has to do with the muddle around social impact metrics.
People in the business of making money have well-worn and universally understood indicators for marking progress and ultimately, success. People in the business of creating social change—philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs—also need indicators to answer questions of how well they are accomplishing their goals. However, within the broad umbrella of “measuring social impact,” it’s still too much a “dog’s breakfast” as people struggle to understand which indicators, platforms, and tools are most useful to answer each person’s specific questions.
A few examples of questions we’ve heard on the path to impact include:
- What works? What doesn’t? What is promising, but not yet proven in improving the lives of the people we aim to help?
- How are we doing (compared to our plan, compared to others, compared to the scope of the problem we are trying to solve)?
- Where and how could we do better for the people whose lives we hope to improve?
Many people are developing ways to answer these questions. Examples include the Foundation Center’s TRASI database (Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact), Charting Impact, Social Impact Exchange, the Outcomes Indicators Project (a joint project of The Center for What Works and the Urban Institute), Alliance for Effective Social Investing, Coalition for Evidence-based Policy, as well as a host of individual foundations and researchers.
A new collaboration between our Center and The Wharton Program for Social Impact (WPSI) will create the Social Impact Analytics Initiative, which will start by examining these and other efforts as part of a broader, multi-phase project aimed at transforming the practice of measuring impact from an academic or a compliance chore, to a practical tool that is effectively improving others’ lives.
Look out for our first joint paper this fall. In the meantime, we welcome any comments, experiences, and suggestions on how to move the field of social impact metrics to more practical and meaningful analytics.