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  • Writer's pictureBeca Wistreich

Navigating The Social Impact Maze: Unravelling Misconceptions And Challenges

A big challenge

 

Do you ever feel like you're navigating a maze when it comes to understanding and measuring your organisation's social impact? You're not alone.

 

Many people find measuring financial and environmental impact much easier. While these dimensions certainly come with their own complexities, there's often a perception that they're more tangible, more quantifiable. After all, euros and carbon emissions leave evidence that can be tracked and measured with relative ease compared to the intricacies of social change.

 

In my recent conversations with individuals and organisations eager to understand and measure their social impact, I've encountered a common thread of challenges. From misconceptions about what impact really means to the tasks of identifying outcomes and measuring them effectively, many people express struggling with the social element of impact.

 

Inspired by those challenges, this blog post will demystify the main challenges I’ve been hearing about. I hope that it will help you to understand what that social element of impact encompasses and how you can identify specific elements of social impact to measure. The next post in this series will cover how to measure them in a way that supports true understanding of change.

 

Defining social impact

 

Social impact refers to the effect or influence that an individual, organisation, programme, project, or policy has on the social fabric of society. It encompasses the tangible and intangible changes that result from actions taken to address social issues, improve communities, or advance wellbeing.

 

At its core, delivering social impact involves creating positive change that leads to meaningful improvements in people's lives, communities, and broader society.

 

The scope of social impact goes further than solely social connections between people and encompasses a wide range of changes, including but not limited to improvements in quality of life, access to opportunities, social justice, equity, and overall societal progress. Financial and environmental factors can also relate social outcomes, when their impact on human wellbeing is considered.

 

Key concepts of social impact

 

Social change

Social impact involves creating positive changes in society, whether it's addressing social inequalities, promoting environmental sustainability, or improving community well-being. Social change is at the core of social impact, as it seeks to address systemic issues and improve the lives of individuals and communities.


Outcomes

Social impact focuses on outcomes rather than outputs. While outputs represent the immediate results of activities (e.g. number of meals served at a food bank), outcomes refer to the broader changes or effects that result from those activities (e.g. reduced food insecurity in the community).

 

People affected

Also commonly referred to as beneficiaries, the people affected are those who are impacted by, or benefit from the social impact of a particular initiative, programme, or intervention.

 

Theory of change

A theory of change is a conceptual framework that outlines how an organisation or initiative achieves (or hopes to achieve) its desired social impact. It identifies the pathways and mechanisms of change that connect activities to outcomes and helps to clarify the logic behind social impact efforts.

 

Sustainability

Social impact efforts should aim to create lasting, sustainable change rather than short-term fixes. This includes considering the long-term viability and scalability of interventions, as well as their potential to address root causes and systemic issues.

 

Equity and inclusion

Ensuring that social impact initiatives address underlying systemic inequalities and promote the participation and empowerment of marginalised or disadvantaged groups.

 

What should I be measuring?

 

In the previous post in this series, I covered the basics of impact measurement and the steps involved. In this post I provide more in-depth guidance on how to identify what to measure; a really common sticking point for organisations that are getting started with this important work.

 

Set goals and objectives for your activities

Thinking specifically about social change, as defined at the start of this post, what do you want your activities, services or efforts to achieve for those people who will be affected by them?

 

Your organisation’s goals will usually be big and broad (e.g. improving quality of life for the people you serve. Objectives, on the other hand, will be the specific ways in which your activities or services aim to achieve those goals (e.g. providing clean and safe housing).

 

Once you know what your organisation’s or project’s social impact objectives are, you will be able to measure the change that occurs against specific indicators.

 

Beneficiary engagement

As previously discussed, it is best practice to involve the people who are affected by your activities in identifying what they have experienced. When thinking about social impact, this is especially important, as awareness of all the social outcomes that have been achieved might be lower than they would be of financial or environmental ones.

 

When you engage the people that are affected by your activities, there are some specific things you will want to learn from them to inform your understanding of the social impact being created. You need to find out what change has been created by what you have done; whether that is a positive or a negative change, an expected one or an unexpected one. The changes described by stakeholders help you understand the outcomes of your programme. It is these real-life effects on people that are the outcomes to be measured.

 

It is useful to get an understanding from the people affected what those outcomes look like for them; how do they know the outcome has in fact been achieved? This will support you in identifying appropriate indicators to measure over time to demonstrate the change that has occurred.

 

Indicators

Once you begin measuring your impact, you will have established through beneficiary engagement what outcomes occur, and what those outcomes look like for the people affected. You can use those insights to identify what things should be measured to show that a change has occurred.  Your indicators are usually a collection of different metrics that point to one overall change, and more often than not include both objective (e.g. incidence) and subjective (e.g. feelings) indicators. 

 

You can also use existing research to inform what indicators you choose to measure, based on how outcomes similar to yours have been measured by others. There are many scientifically validated tools proven to measure all sorts of outcomes, like improved social capital, self-esteem, physical health, educational performance and quality of life. Alternatively, you can consult with experts in the specific area you are measuring to identify appropriate indicators.

 

Conclusion

 

Navigating the intricacies of social impact measurement can indeed feel like being lost in a maze, particularly when compared to the seemingly more straightforward realms of financial and environmental metrics. However, by understanding the core concepts and challenges surrounding social impact, the process can be made easier.

 

As we journey through this process, it's crucial to acknowledge the uniqueness of each organisation and initiative. Tailoring measurement approaches to specific contexts ensures that we capture the full breadth of social impact, contributing to meaningful and sustainable change in society.

 

About the Author:


Beca Wistreich, Director at The Outcome, is an accredited Advanced Practitioner of Social Value, and a member both of Social Value Ireland and Social Value International. 

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