What is Social Impact Measurement? A Definition

As we've shared previously, social impact measurement is a process and framework for collecting and analyzing data to measure and attribute positive social outcomes to an organization’s direct actions. For example, a sustainable, plant-based food brand might measure metrics around:

(1) The environmental sustainability and ethics of its supply chain, suppliers, and food growers

(2) Free product and in-kind donations and their related health, wellness, and economic impacts

(3) The number of meals served to people in need through its philanthropy and community partnerships

(4) Diversity, inclusion, justice, equity, and employee engagement targets, metrics, and indicators, which might also extend to employee volunteering and giving

Whether you're a non-profit, corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative, government, or other impact-focused organization, most practitioners understand this basic relationship between actions, impact, and outcomes. The challenge is the data needed to connect the dots. How do we get it? And what should we do once we have it?

Social Impact Measurement Framework

Generally, best-practice organizations use a combination of different collection methods to gather data for impact measurement.

We commonly see five different methods (or sources) - here we'll break down and discuss each one.

(1) Direct action and digital signup data

With a good signup or check-in flow process, action data's some of the most straightforward information to collect. How many people donated through your online form? How many employees showed up for volunteering day? How many attendees showed up to your Zoom webinar? Here, making sure you have an integrated, cross-platform system for signup pages, forms, check-ins, and action data will simplify one of your main data inputs when it comes to your supporters, employees, or community members: who did what when?

A best practice here is to make sure all your data's going into the same database (ideally a CRM or lighter "workflow CRM" list). The more you have to connect and aggregate information from different systems, the more difficult it becomes to collect, standardize, and normalize all your action data. Similarly, while spreadsheets are cheap, flexible, and easy to use when starting out, they don't handle organizational complexity well and can be hard to keep track of. Try to keep your "dynamic" or constantly changing data out of spreadsheets and in business systems more suited for the task.

(2) Survey data

Whereas action data provides quantitative information about people's activity, surveys can supplement and enrich this by providing data collection that extends to qualitative measurement. If you've ever taken a "rate your customer experience from 1 to 5" survey, you've provided survey feedback. And, if you're new(er) to impact measurement and reporting, it can be helpful to start simple.

We recommend starting with a simple approach to take your theory of change or overall impact strategy and pick 1-5 "north star" success indicators to measure. Unless you're a sophisticated organization with complex stakeholder reporting or compliance requirements, don't start with more than five metrics. Next, identify any data needs or gaps that require surveying. For example, if you're an animal rescue organization that tracks animals placed in foster care through an existing CRM or database, but don't have enough data on how animals are doing *after* they've been placed in foster care, you could design a simple annual, health and quality-of-life survey to share with foster families once a year.

Above all, make sure you have a process and answers for the key aspects of survey design:

(1) What data do we need?

(2) Who collects the data?

(3) Who's our survey population we're collecting data from? Is it statistically significant?

(4) When and how often (frequency) are we surveying?

(5) Where are we storing the data we've collected?

(6) What additional data processing and analysis is needed to make use of it?

With a little survey planning, consideration, and design, it's easy to create a survey to collect the info you're interested in:

Once you start collecting survey responses, you'll need to make sure the responses stay organized and discoverable in a single, secure place. That will allow you or the impact measurement system you're using to analyze the responses to report on impact, outcomes, trends, and changes over time.

(3) Systems data

A third input source for social impact or sustainability measurement is data that lives in systems you already have. Whether you're a small organization storing contacts in Mailchimp or a large enterprise with CRM, ERP, HRIS, and payroll system instances, some of the inputs you likely need for your social impact measurement already exist in other systems. The challenge (as always) is accessing and making use of it.

Here again, typically there are different options. The simplest could be a static data export, or using a webhook platform like Zapier to create connections between two different tools. In more complex instances, integrations are often required.

(4) Partner data

One of the realities in impact and sustainability measurement is it's better and easier with good partners. Whether that's shared impact measurement achieved by a company and its non-profit partners, a foundation and its grant recipients, or a brand working with its suppliers around more responsible sourcing the theme's always the same: it's always some combination of hard, slow, or incomplete picture doing it alone.

As you might expect, a good starting point is using surveys and systems integrations specifically designed for partner data sharing and cooperation. If you have more complex partner reporting needs, you may want to consider a dedicated system like Brightest that enables 360° partner-to-partner impact oversight and collaboration.

(5) Manual entry

Finally, as a last resort, there's always manual entry, imports, and exports - in other words, doing it yourself (DIY). From our perspective, one of the main goals of a well-designed impact measurement system should be to save the time and cost(s) required for effective, transparent impact or environmental measurement. But, at the end of the day, no system's perfect, even Brightest (although we certainly try our best). To this point, manual entry and DIY social impact data collect should be seen as a last resort: a way to deal with the rough edges, unexpected challenges, and tricky nuances of your specfic organization or impact domain.

From our experience, if you're spending a meaningful amount of your time on impact measurement and stakeholder reporting and that isn't your main job, there are likely areas within your impact or environmental reporting workflow that can be improved. Start with a good set of templates and toolkits, then start to think about process automation and where more efficiency can be introduced.

As always, we wish you all the best as you continue your impact and environmental measurement work. If we can be helpful at all (at any step in your process), please get in touch. A central part of our mission here at Brightest is enabling better data-driven decision-making (and actions) for good.