Category Archives: Corporate social responsibility

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.


Community engagement – with a twist

Shiny, happy posters: community consultation can be enjoyable

Here’s a lovely example of community enagement, courtesy of my partner’s recent trip to his Toronto hometown.

The posters inform the community that the neighbourhood is undergoing an “extreme makeover” – no doubt involving construction noise, traffic impacts and disruption in their “favourite neighbourhood.”

But the tone is happy and upbeat in its warm appeal: “Let’s get through this together.”

It shows how community consultation can be a positive experience – if approached with creativity and sensitivity.

Too often, stakeholder engagement is seen as a risk or unnecessary expense in development planning processes: “We just don’t want to open up a can of worms” being a common refrain.

But genuine and open engagement can bring real benefits, enabling positive new connections between clients and communities which may endure well beyond the formal engagement process.

Leadership and authenticity

Leadership is a great privilege because it opens the gate to the heart’s journey – it provides us with incentive to embark and remain committed to the hero’s quest. In other words, it provides us with the impetus, challenge and support we need to unlock the key to our own wellbeing, fulfilment, and highest potential.”

I came across this quote recently in a book by Margot Cairnes – Approaching the Corporate Heart. While the book’s tone may not appeal to some, it certainly set me thinking about the challenge of authenticity and commitment to an ethical and moral framework in business decision-making.

This is an area in which it’s all to easy to talk the talk, yet at times so challenging to walk the walk. The latter is often far less glamorous, headline-grabbing or profile-raising. Doing the “hard yards” can be costly in the short term, but it has the potential to pay significant dividends over the longer term.

The issue of leadership and authenticity arises on a regular basis in the fields of social planning and social research. Social impact assessment is a case in point. Evaluating and reporting on the potential negative social impacts of a new development, for example, requires a careful approach, particularly when the developer is the client. Stakeholder engagement is another sphere of work which requires thoughtful handling. Reporting back to a client on their stakeholders’ perceptions of their operational effectiveness or company values must grounded in respect for their desire to ask questions and self-reflect in the first place.

In both cases authenticity is paramount. This is all we have to stand by when it comes to the crunch. It is the fundamental basis of our professional reputation. It is also rarely black and white.