Measuring what Matters
IF YOU’VE WORKED FOR A SOCIAL PURPOSE ORGANIZATION for any length of time — particularly if you’ve attended a conference or two — you’ve probably heard the story of the old man and the starfish.
The story goes something like this. A wise old man is walking with a young boy along a beach covered with starfish sweltering in the hot sun. The old man picks up one of the starfish and flings it far out into the water. The boy asks why, since he knows the old man can’t possibly rescue enough starfish to really make a difference to the countless others strewn on the beach. “Yes,” the old man replies, “but it made a difference to that one.”
So it goes for social purpose organizations. Not always sure how to quantify the change we create, and emotionally drawn to success stories that connect with our mission, we often boil our measurement strategies down to capturing anecdotal evidence of a success here, a success there. “It made a difference to that one.”
There is power in such stories, and an important place for them in considering and communicating the results of our efforts to create sustainable social change. But it can’t and shouldn’t end there. Just as the wise old man clearly understood the scope of the impact he was creating, social purpose organizations need to understand — and measure — the scope of the impact they’re creating on people, their communities and our world.For many reasons — including increasing scrutiny from the public and private funders of social purpose initiatives — the question of quantifying social change has become more important over the last two decades. In 2003, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Goldman Sachs Foundation pulled together 51 participants from 31 institutions as part of its Double Bottom Line Project. The resulting report issued by the foundations concluded that:
While the field has evolved, funders and social purpose investors still wrestle with the most fundamental of questions: How do they know that their grants and investments are achieving desired results? The field has yet to establish a common understanding of ”social impact”— what it is or how to measure it. Currently, measures of impact vary from funder to funder, and organization to organization. The more sophisticated measurement tools integrate organizational and process metrics with quantifiable outcome data, but in the absence of a common measure...investors and grantmakers are making it up as they go along.
Beyond the needs of funders to quantify change, it’s also a necessity if the social purpose sector is to better align our human, financial and political capital to create lasting change. Ultimately, more effective measurement can build significant community capital through development of more effective strategies and implementation of powerful social initiatives. After all, measuring social change allows us to determine what’s working and what’s not, and to make whatever modifications might be required along the way
to our strategic or creative approach.