Measuring social impact: challenge and consensus

Measuring social impact raises a range of challenges for practitioners, not least of which is the current lack of consensus on applicable tools and measures.

The University of Technology Sydney’s Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre (CCS) brought together a range of minds to examine these issues at a recent symposium. The stimulating event saw new research presented by academics and professionals in the field, including James Goodman and Jenny Onyx of the CCS, Bronwyn Batten, Senior Aboriginal Affairs Policy Officer of the NSW Department of Premier & Cabinet, and Jason Prior or the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.

Discussions focused on the challenge of translating policy into practice and of developing systems of measurement that are effective in measuring what we intend them to measure. This is not as simple as it may seem when talking about social impact, which often encompasses intangible concepts and outcomes.

Interestingly, in the context of the broad range of sectors represented on the day, from fisheries to human services, and across the government, not-for-profit and private sectors, there was broad consensus around some of the issues associated with developing effective measurement tools:

  • Lack of agreement on applied tools and frameworks, creating barriers to comparative measurement across organisations and sectors.
  • Application of frameworks that are primarily quantitative in structure and which provide little or no opportunity for recording qualitative data and “storytelling” – so essential in the sphere of social impact.
  • Achieving agreement around key performance indicators, which may, for example, result in organisations being required to report to funding bodies on measures determined by those funding bodies, but which are perceived by the subject organisation to be ineffective in capturing the right or most valuable¬Ě data.
  • Associated with the above, issues arising when data collection and recording frameworks are perceived to be unreflective of an organisation’s true purpose. This may lead to the development of dual or parallel measurement frameworks, ie. an internal unofficial framework used for organisational development purposes, and an external¬† framework used for official reporting requirements. Such an outcome is ineffective resource-intensive.
  • The importance of distinguishing between “outputs” and true “outcomes” or “impacts,” and of capturing the latter through measurement processes.
  • Resourcing requirements for effective data collection and recording associated with social impact assessment among service delivery organisations, and the need for external advisory and internal capacity building.

Ultimately, the symposium enabled an exciting exploration of the opportunities for the future of social impact measurement.

It was passionately acknowledged among attendees that these challenges offer rich possibilities for the future – one in which the practice of measuring social impact is respected as a valid and critical technical process and discipline. Achieving this recognition will require practitioners to work collaboratively to develop a degree of consensus around the meaning and application of measurement tools and techniques.

 

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