How to get started with social impact measurement?
PUBLISHED ON September 28, 2023
In this article, we go through the basics of social impact measurement and we’re sharing a few pieces of advice on how to get started. We will look into both quantitative and qualitative metrics and share how they work in tandem.
This way we can achieve a more holistic understanding of our programme’s social impact and drive meaningful change in the communities we serve.
(This article was brought to you by Goodsted and The Uplift Agency)
- Work with your colleagues and community partners to set a clear and shared definition of impact.
- Continuously collect and analyse data to assess the positive change your actions bring to communities (Social impact measurement)
- Understand quantitative (output) and qualitative (outcome) metrics and the difference between them
- Balance output and outcomes: Both metric types complement each other to provide a comprehensive understanding of your programme's effectiveness.
- If you’re just starting out, then begin with easily collectable output metrics, while still considering long-term outcomes.
- Implement a data collection plan including choosing the right tools, considering timing and the different stages of your programme.
- Create a baseline for your measurement as it will help you set up realistic goals for the upcoming years.
But first of all 🔽
What is social impact measurement? 📈
There are quite a few definitions out there so we’ve simplified it.
Social impact measurement is the process where we collect and assess data to see if our collective actions actually make a positive difference, as we intend them to. It's a way to carefully look at the results of our actions (e.g., volunteering in communities), to determine if they really improve people’s lives.
Basically, we use numbers and stories to determine if the changes we’re seeking to make are really happening. This way we can ensure that we continue the right activities in order to help people more efficiently, ultimately driving a lasting, positive effect.
Define ‘impact’ for your programme 💬
The very first step before measuring any social impact programme is to define what impact means.
Start by focusing on your organisation and align internally on a universally valued definition of impact. Make sure that both your company’s employees' and leadership’s voices are heard as it will set your programme in the right direction.
Following this step, reach out to your community partners and find out what impact means to them. This is important because they may have a unique perspective on how they define it. This way you can learn what their goals are and it will be easier to make sure that your actions will align with theirs.
By understanding how your partners define impact, it will create ease when crafting goals and objectives that are connected with those you support. Just keep in mind that when others have a different definition of social impact, the metrics (also known as key performance indicators or KPIs) they’re using may be slightly different than yours.
Now, by involving everyone you can find the perfect balance in aligning on the vision, including your community’s perspective and your team’s viewpoint as well. This will give a more comprehensive understanding of what impact truly means to all your stakeholders.
What are social impact metrics? 📊
Before we go all-in with our programme, it’s essential to understand the nature of measurement and what it builds upon. Let’s continue with another definition.
Social impact metrics are the measurement data that you can use to assess your progress toward achieving specific goals. These can be quantitative and qualitative values that are connected to a specific outcome or objective. For example, you can use them to determine whether meaningful change is happening as a result of your employee volunteering programme.
To put it simply, social impact metrics are like the yardstick we use to measure how much of a positive impact our efforts are making in the community we serve.
These metrics help us answer essential questions such as:
- Are we making a positive difference?
- Do our actions translate into tangible improvements for the community?
- Are we achieving our goals and fulfilling our mission?
Now, let's take a closer look at the two different types of social impact metrics.
Quantitative Metrics (Output Measurement) 🧮
These are specific, measurable values that focus on the quantity of something achieved or delivered. The quantitative metrics could include the number of volunteer hours achieved, the total amount of funds raised, the quantity of products distributed, or the number of people reached. It’s a measurement that’s solely focused on measuring an input or output.
These metrics provide valuable insights into the scale and reach of your efforts because they help in assessing your programme’s output and activity levels. For instance, if you organise a volunteer event and 100 employees participate, and together, they contribute 500 hours of service, these numbers are quantitative metrics that demonstrate the programme's scope and scale.
Qualitative Metrics (Outcome Measurement) 📝
Qualitative metrics, on the other hand, focus on the quality of an outcome. Unlike quantitative metrics that deal with numerical figures, qualitative metrics describe the nature of the change or improvement experienced by the community.
These metrics capture the more subjective sides of your programme’s impact, such as the level of satisfaction or positive experience among the beneficiaries.
For example, qualitative metrics may include feedback from community members about how the volunteer activities have positively impacted their lives or contributed to their well-being.
While qualitative metrics can be harder to measure compared to quantitative ones, they provide valuable insights into the deeper, more meaningful changes happening within the community.
They help answer questions like:
- How did our program make a difference in people's lives?
- Are we truly addressing the needs of the community?
The difference between output and outcome measurement 💡
It might not be surprising that striking a balance between measuring both output and outcomes is the key. While both are essential to assess your social impact properly, relying solely on one or the other can result in missing the big picture when it comes to understanding your programme’s effectiveness.
When we think about the differences between output and outcomes as forms of measurement, output is the easiest to measure so it’s often the type of metrics you’ll see reported.
It’s very common to see both nonprofits and corporations measure the output. More specifically as it’s related to volunteerism data, you’ll see this reported as the following:
- Number of volunteers engaged in service.
- Number of total hours served by volunteers.
- Number of total products made or assembled (e.g. number of trees planted, number of disaster kits made, number of families served, number of meals served).
- Amount of dollars raised during a fundraising event.
- Number of participants in the 5k walk-a-thon.
While output can measure the amount of energy spent (e.g., number of volunteer hours) and the quantity of items made (e.g. number of meals served), what it doesn’t tell you is whether or not it was of good quality and whether or not it made a difference for the community on the receiving end.
This is where measuring the outcomes (the qualitative metrics) comes into the picture because it helps you understand the difference in quality.
Measuring outcomes is harder because, instead of focusing on quantity, you’re measuring something much more subjective or less tangible. (Often, you’ll see this expressed as the percentage of change between two periods of time.)
When measuring social impact with qualitative data, you can use words that describe the quality. For example:
- Percentage of residents in a community that went from experiencing “extreme” levels of hunger to “moderate” levels of hunger.
- Percentage of children that increased their English literacy level from “poor” to “good” over the course of a year-long training program.
- Percentage of volunteers who went from feeling “not at all appreciated” to “very appreciated” by the organisation they’re volunteering with, over the course of a calendar year after the implementation of a recognition and awards program.
Both outputs and outcomes are like pieces of a puzzle; they complement each other to form a complete picture of your programme's social impact.
Outputs show the "what" of your program—what activities were carried out, how many people were involved, and what was produced. Outcomes, on the other hand, delve into the "so what"—the actual difference these activities have made, the positive changes experienced by beneficiaries, and the long-term effects on the community.
What social impact metrics should you start with? 🧭
While our goal is to get a comprehensive understanding of our impact, it’s practical to start with the output metrics because it’s easier to collect them (though outcomes-based metrics shouldn’t be ignored).
A great practice to consider while defining your metrics is reaching out to your community partners early to determine how you can put in place a data-collection plan that allows you to collect what is most important to them.
For example, the easiest and most accessible metrics might include things like the following:
- Number of volunteers engaged in service.
- Number of total hours serviced by volunteers.
- Total number of output (i.e. dollars raised, meals served, trees planted).
But, be sure they’re connected to the immediate or long-term outcomes. Here’s an example of how that might look.
The visual above shows an example of how qualitative and quantitative metrics are mutually supportive. When they are paired together appropriately, they tell a more rich, meaningful and accurate story. Ideally, volunteer engagement metrics should include input, the activity, the output and - most importantly - the outcome of what was achieved.
Implement your data collection plan 🧲
Let’s say you collectively agreed on how you define impact; now it’s time to put a data collection plan in place.
A data collection plan is the strategy and system you build to gather, measure, and later report on your key performance indicators (KPIs) or metrics. Having an effective data collection plan is like having a roadmap that guides you through the journey of measuring social impact.
It provides a structured approach to gathering the right information at the right time, ensuring that you can accurately assess the outcomes of your initiatives.
While this can be an organised spreadsheet with different sections for data, there are solutions like Goodsted which simplifies and enhances the tracking of the metrics you’re interested in — saving you from getting lost in the forest of spreadsheet rows and columns.
When selecting a tool, consider whether it can handle both quantitative (output) and qualitative (outcome) data. Keep in mind that while most tools can handle quantitative data well, capturing qualitative data might require additional surveying tools.
It’s also important to take into consideration that the different stages of your programme affect the timing and the type of data you collect.
Let's take an example of organising a food donation drive. As the event unfolds, you can collect the number of volunteers (input) from registration records and the amount of food collected (output) during the event itself.
If your goal is to measure the total volunteer hours (output), you'll need to calculate the hours each participant served. If meals are prepared and served later, data collection will include the number of meals made and served (output) as well.
But the story doesn't end there.
If you want to capture how the food drive truly impacted the community, you might need to collect qualitative data through surveys or interviews (outcome). For instance, you could ask community members how their experience of hunger changed after receiving meals from your programme.
Collecting this type of data might take time and patience but provides valuable insights into the long-term outcomes of your efforts.
Set up a baseline and goals as soon as you can 🏔️
Of course, the data you collect only makes sense when you can put them in the proper context.
Let’s say you launched your programme, have been running it for 6 months and you decided to make some changes to try improving performance. Before you change anything, make sure you set up a starting point of measurement. This is called a ‘baseline’.
This baseline helps you understand how things are before your interventions.
Collect data over a specific period (usually a year) to create a foundation of information. This way, you'll have something to compare your future data against, making it easier to see the progress you've made.
Once you have your baseline data, you can set meaningful goals for your program. Goals should extend beyond the baseline period and consider both quantitative and qualitative aspects.
- Quantitative goals might involve increasing the number of volunteer hours served or the amount of funds raised.
- Qualitative goals could revolve around improving the community's well-being or increasing satisfaction levels.
Using the baseline data, think about setting goals that extend approximately five years out where possible.
Let’s look at an example.
If using a quantitative metric over the course of a year where 25,000 employees serve 100,000 hours of volunteer service, that breaks down to an average of 4 hours per employee.
Assuming all other inputs remain the same, you can reasonably expect that over the course of the next five years, those same 25,000 employees, serving an average of 4 hours a year, will serve a total of 500,000 hours of volunteer service based on the baseline data collected over the course of a year.
Setting achievable goals also requires a realistic understanding of external factors that could influence your program's progress.
For instance, changes in the number of employees or shifts in the economy might impact volunteer participation or fundraising efforts. But regardless of these external factors, having a baseline of data will help you set an initial goal that you can adjust from year to year as you seek to achieve that goal.
The next steps 🪜
As you think about measuring your impact, you now have a better understanding of the different types of data and ways to measure them. But first, make sure you work with your internal and external stakeholders to define how you understand social impact.
Social impact will mean different things to different stakeholders, so think about creating an agreed-upon definition of what social impact is and means.
Once social impact is defined, think about the quantitative (output) and qualitative (outcome) data you want to collect and where that data exists.
Some types of data are more immediately available (output) and others (like outcome) are more long-term and may exist within different parts of your volunteering process, other business units or even sit with the charitable partners you’re working with.
At the end of the day, understanding the type of data you’re collecting is just as important as how and when you collect it. As with any data collection plan, you’ll need to think long-term about how you track and measure your metrics.
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