What is Social Impact Measurement? A Definition

Social impact measurement is a process and framework for measuring and attributing positive social change to an organization’s direct actions. For example, a non-profit shelter and food pantry will measure metrics like:

(1) Number of meals served

(2) How many community members it gives care and shelter to

(3) Individual and community well-being from its programs — which could include indicators like health and wellness indicators, housing stability, and job placement, as well as broader trends in local rates of poverty, homelessness, and economic development.

As we can already see in this example, there’s a relationship between an impact organization’s operations (collecting and distributing food, providing shelter), measurement (# of meals served), and positive social benefit (ex: better health and housing outcomes), defined around a problem statement or theory of change strategy. Social impact measurement understands these relationships through data.

Social Impact Measurement Framework

In this sense, social impact measurement is a process that encompasses several components:

(1) A mission statement and/or theory of change

(2) An impact strategy

(3) Measurement framework (selected social impact metrics + indicators)

(4) Data strategy

(5) Data capacity (collection and capabilities)

(6) Social impact analytics, data science, and measurement

(7) Impact reporting, learning, and continuous improvement

But in a space with many overlapping frameworks, social impact measurement can also feel like acronym soup. There's IRIS, SASB, GRESB, SDG, Guidestar, as well as B Lab's B-Corporation framework.

Below we compare each different impact measurement framework, as well as offer some measurement guidelines and recommendations.

For organizations that are newer to social impact, corporate social responsibility (CSR), or environmental social governance (ESG), existing measurement frameworks can be a helpful way to establish program guidelines, measurement strategy, and focus data collection. In most cases, it's best to start with an existing framework that fits your organizations work, goals, and measurement capacity.

B Corporation

The B Corp certification (and measurement framework) is designed for companies looking to make balanced business decisions and investments that weight the impact on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. B Corp's impact framework measures five categories:

(1) Governance - corporate structure, control, shareholder rights, shareholder diversity and inclusion (D & I), and distribution of shareholder value to employees

(2) Workers - fair and just labor practices, compensation, workplace diversity, employee volunteering, and culture indicators

(3) Community - the B Corp's interactions and impact on the broader community

(4) Environment - the company's sustainability practices, measurement, and environmental impact and footprint

(5) Customers - how customer-centric the company is, how it measures customer success and satisfication, and who the company serves and works with

While there are some larger B Corps like Danone North America, Eileen Fisher, and Patagonia, generally the C Corp framework is a better fit for mission-driven startups and mid-sized companies who care about balancing profit and purpose, yet don't have large, complex ESG reporting infrastructure. Most B Corps typically staff one to three full-time employees in their social impact team or department, which then interfaces cross-organizational with other leaders and stakeholders to implement programs, gather reporting data, and measure impact. At present, B Corp certification and reporting is primarily survey-based.

[Disclaimer: Brightest is in the process of certifying as a B Corp, and also designs and develops software used by other B Corps for social impact operations and measurement. To learn more about the B Corporation Framework, go here.]

IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards)

IRIS describes itself as a "generally accepted system for measuring, managing, and optimizing impact," primarily based on the United Nation's (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) impact measurement framework.

IRIS+ provides a robust, open-source list of social impact metrics mapped to the UN SDG's, making it a helpful starter resource for non-profits and social enterprises, particularly those engaged in large-scale or international impact work. If you're new to measurement frameworks or looking to adopt a more standards-based approach to measurement, we highly recommend spending some time reading through the IRIS+ resource library and metrics list.

Social Impact Measurement Framework

Source: IRIS+

However, one practical challenge with IRIS's measurement and metrics ecosystem is its size and complexity. As of 2019, IRIS suggests 594 different potential social impact metrics in its reference set. In most cases, only a few will apply to your organization, and - just as importantly - it's critically important to start with a manageable set of key performance indicators (KPIs) and build out measurement capacity over time. Start with three to five IRIS metrics as your core impact measurement criteria, then grow and assess from there.

SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board)

SASB has similarities to IRIS and the B Corp Framework, but with more integrated design of financial accounting standards. As a result, SASB applies what some view as a higher level of "rigor" or precision to social impact and sustainability measurement.

Whereas IRIS+ is sector-specific (Climate, Diversity & Inclusion, Health, Water), SASB segments by industry vertical (Consumer Goods, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, etc.), using 77 different standards. And by comparison to B Corp, SASB is more of a large enterprise framework used for corporate governance, shareholder and ESG reporting, and socially responsible investing (SRI) analysis.

If you work at a large corporation, find, download, and familiarize yourself with the SASB standards for your industry - then work with internal and external partners and experts to establish the right measurement and reporting system.

GRI (Global Reporting Initiative)

GRI is based in Amsterdam, and its measurement system, the GRI Standards, is a framework for international sustainability reporting. Similar to SASB, GRI Standards are designed for large global organizations. GRI Standards specifically aim to help support a global common language for non-financial sustainability reporting and disclosures, versus SASB's embrace of more finance-centric social impact reporting.

GRI segments its standards into four categories:

(1) Universal

101: Reporting Principles ["Materiality"]

102: General Disclosures

103: Management Approach)

(2) Economic

(3) Environmental

(4) Social

Within GRI's three (3) Universal Standards, GRI asks organizations using its reporting framework to define (and disclose) several foundation aspect of the organization's mission and impact as part of its General Disclosures:

(1) Organizational profile - an overview of the organization’s size, geographic location, and activities

(2) Impact Strategy - an overview of the organization’s strategy with respect to sustainability and social impact

(3) Ethics and Integrity - the organization's defined alues, principles, standards, and norms of behavior

(4) Governance - the organization's structure and composition, as well as environmental risk management and policies for evaluating economic, environmental and social performance and decision-making.

(5) Stakeholder engagement - the organization’s approach to stakeholder alignment and engagement

(6) Reporting practice - the organization’s approach to sustainability reporting and measurement

GRI further segments its reporting system into three categories: (a) Mandatory requriements that an organization must comply with to meet GRI's standards, (b) Recommendations that are encouraged but not required to be GRI compliant, and (c) Guidance, which serve as market context to organizations using GRI Standards to prepare a GRI-compliant sustainability report or benchmark social impact measurement against a specific set of standards.

GRI Sustainability Reporting Stantard

An example GRI water reporting standard. Source: GRI and GSSB

GRESB

For most non-profits and social impact organizations, GRESB won't be relevant, but can be a helpful sub-measurement framework within larger corporate impact measurement in cases where the company owns, makes, and/or controls meaningful real estate and infrastructure investments.

In almost every case, we recommend starting small (three to five core impact metrics) and identifying the most relevant, existing impact measurement framework to serve as reference inspiration (and benchmarking standards) for your social impact work, ESG, or CSR program. If you're a startup, start with B Corp. If you're a non-profit, start with IRIS+ or Guidestar. And generally, only turn to custom impact metrics when (a) existing measurement systems clearly don't fit your work and (b) you have high confidence in your data and measurement capacity.

We wish you all the best as you continue your impact measurement, and 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.