Evidencing your social impact: Why do it? (guest post)

We’re delighted to welcome Dr Richard Hazenberg to the I2E blog!

Everyone knows that charities and social enterprises are great organisations, committed to delivering social good to their local communities and doing so in transformative and impactful ways.

Few would disagree with the above statement; it’s a widespread feeling that underpins the country’s faith (and fondness) for third sector organisations. However, we now live in a world where evidence is king (or queen), whether it be related to policy-making, the commissioning of public services, or the evaluation of existing provision. Nevertheless, evaluation and research are areas that all organisations often fail to invest in.

This is no truer than in the third sector, with charities and social enterprises are already stretched in both providing their core services and tendering for grants and contracts. It is therefore all too easy to put off resourcing impact measurement, but to do so carries long-term strategic costs.

The situation is also clouded by the fact that social impact is poorly defined, there are a plethora of competing methodologies claiming to measure social impact, and the cost of engaging external research consultancies (including universities) can often be high. The purpose of this blog is to show that defining social impact need not be complicated, expensive or overly time-consuming, and that the benefits of grasping this nettle early-on can have profound impacts for organisations in the medium-term.

Defining social impact

Social impact has been defined ad nauseam in academic, policy, practitioner and support organisation circles.

For me, the best example of a working definition for social impact emerged from the European Commission’s GECES sub-committee, which defined social impact as the short and long-term (measurable) outcomes delivered by organisations that can be solely attributed to their actions over a certain period of time.

To put it more simply, it’s the net good stuff delivered by a social enterprise to society!

How to measure your enterprise’s social impact

Considering the above as a working definition, we then need to approach the issue of how you go about identifying and measuring these net effects within your organisation.

The key here is to begin to map out the activities that an organisation engages in and to then understand the outputs, outcomes and impacts that these lead to:

  • An output can be defined as the direct and easily identifiable outputs of an intervention (e.g. the number of people employed);
  • an outcome represents positive changes to participants’ states of mind that will enhance their lives (e.g. improved well-being);
  • an impact focuses on the wider benefits to society (e.g. reduced welfare costs).

Once these are mapped then the organisation can begin to understand how it might measure these variables; for instance, through the completion by beneficiaries of a wellbeing questionnaire at the start and end of their engagement with said organisation.

Don’t panic!

The mapping of these activity areas can often create a feeling of panic amongst organisations, as they begin to identify just how wide their social impact is, and therefore the difficulties they will face in measuring these variables.

This is compounded by the fact that in order to align with best practice principles (again – see the 2014 GECES report), an organisation should also engage with control groups in order to:

  • account for deadweight (i.e. what would have happened anyway);
  • identify the contribution of partner organisations (alternative attribution);
  • determine how long these impacts last for into the future (termed as drop-off).

However, whilst the above does represent the gold standard, this should be the end-goal that organisations strive for, not the starting point. Indeed, a social enterprise with £3,000 to spend on impact evaluation cannot hope to resource control groups and in-depth research studies.

My advice here is to identify which of the activity areas are strategically most important to you and within this which of the output, outcomes and impacts you can feasibly measure (financially and otherwise). In addition, whilst the use of external consultants and universities can be hugely beneficial, do not pay for support that you could resource in-house.

In much of my work with third sector organisations it never ceases to amaze me how much research expertise exists within an organisation (e.g. a member of staff who researched and wrote a dissertation during their degree), and often how under-utilised this is. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, ‘Never trouble [or in this case pay] another for what you can do yourself’.

Wrapping up

Assuming that you begin to measure your social impact then what benefits can you expect to see?

First, you will have powerful data of your impact that you can use to market your organisation to external stakeholders and partners, including beneficiaries, commissioners, investors and funders. However, the more powerful effect comes internally, as you can begin to identify what you are doing that is impactful, but more importantly also what you are doing that isn’t working as well as you’d hoped.

Social impact measurement therefore provides the opportunity to both improve internal performance, whilst also putting the organisation’s best foot forwards externally. Engaging in social impact measurement is not an easy journey, and the data you gather and the reports that you produce will be far from perfect – especially in the early years.

The key is to remember that this is fine, and that the process is a developmental one. The measurement of impact and its implementation in the third sector is vital to the legitimacy of the sector in the long-term. This legitimacy and the sustainability of the third sector is something that myself, and the University of Northampton see as fundamental to the development of a fairer society in the future.

About the author

Dr Richard Hazenberg is a Principal Researcher and Research Leader of the Institute for Social Innovation and Impact at the University of Northampton. Since joining the University of Northampton in 2009, Richard has completed a PhD that explored the evaluation of outcome benefits in social enterprises in the work-integration sector. He also has research interests in the areas of social innovation, social finance, social enterprise governance and social impact measurement.

Richard has published research in international, peer-reviewed academic journals and has also presented research papers at conferences in Europe, Asia and America, and has contributed to international/national government policy through papers and roundtable meetings (including for the European Commission; Cabinet Office; and HM Treasury). Richard has managed several international and national research projects for the University including projects funded by the European Social Fund, Horizon 2020, Big Lottery Fund and Big Issue. He has also conducted social impact measurement consultancy work with over 50 third sector organisations in the UK. Dr Hazenberg is on the editorial board of the Social Enterprise Journal and is a reviewer for a number of international peer-review journals including Policy and Politics, Public Management Review, Public Money and Management, the Journal of Social Policy and the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship. He is also currently supervising eight PhD research students and is a trustee of a leading and innovative social enterprise in the East Midlands that works with socially excluded young people.

Richard is one of the University of Northampton’s leading academic researchers in the field of social innovation, social entrepreneurship and social impact.

References

  1. Clifford, J., Hehenberger, L., & Fantini, M., (2014), Proposed Approaches to Social Impact Measurement in European Commission legislation and in practice relating to: EuSEFs and the EaSI, European Commission Report 140605 (June 2014), available here
  2. McLoughlin, J., Kaminski, J., Sodagar, B., Khan, S., Harris, R., Arnaudo, G., & McBrearty, S., (2009), A strategic approach to social impact measurement of social enterprises: The SIMPLE methodology, Social Enterprise Journal, 5(2), pp. 154-178.

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