For the past several months, I have been studying the impact measurement agenda sitting alongside and beyond the typical boundaries of SiMPACT’s work.
Examples of investments that are a part of the impact agenda include investments across a wide range of social issues (poverty reduction, crime reduction and prevention, homelessness etc.), in technologies that have the potential to dramatically improve a person or community’s standard of living, affordable housing and environmental improvements.
The impact investment world is ever-expanding.
For clarity, SiMPACT typically focuses on the valuation of impact, although we increasingly find ourselves developing evaluation plans and evaluation tools in order to collect the data that enables the valuation process to happen. We welcome opportunities to be involved in the impact measurement process, as measurement is such a critical step toward valuation.
I have a sincere curiosity about why impact measurement seems to be an increasingly popular topic of conversation, yet seems to be linked to a fairly limited amount of progress. Many say they want to measure impact, but few actually seem to. Why, oh why, is that?
Obstacles in the way of measuring impact
From information gathered thus far, there seem to be a couple of straight-forward reasons for the glacial state of progress. First, people often use the word impact without really thinking through what impact means. Without clear meaning, it is exceptionally difficult to develop a detailed measurement agenda.
To achieve impact, it means that something has changed, i.e. something is different than what it was before an action was taken. From observations to date, people use the word impact (think change) and express a desire to measure impact (think change), but then move right into a description of an action, i.e. how impact is achieved (think action).
Unfortunately, metrics to examine whether planning and implementation of an activity was effective are simply not the same as metrics that illustrate the change that has (or has not) resulted. This seems like a very simple problem to fix. And yet, very few seem to be able to make that adjustment.
Second, many people say that measuring impact is much too difficult, i.e. the degree of difficulty is the sole reason that measurement does not occur. While it is true that measuring impact may not be straight-forward, the difficulty perceived is often more a result of a lack of clarity on what the word impact is referring to, i.e. an extension of the point above. This is different than an actual measurement exercise being to difficult to achieve.
In our experience, without measurement, the value of an activity, not to mention the value of change that results from an activity, will remain a challenge to communicate, even to a knowledgeable audience. At the same time, without real clarity on what is to be measured (is it the change itself, or the effective delivery of the action that lead to the change occurring?), the impact measurement agenda will continue to experience slow progress.
So what is the answer? A clear vision of what constitutes effective action, coupled with clarity on what is meant by impact, i.e. what will change when that action is implemented. Next, clarity regarding the objective for measurement is needed. Is the objective to assess how the action unfolded, or, whether real change has occurred? Finally, we need to use our words consistently.
When we speak about impact, we need to be sure that our intention is to speak to change. These simple steps could make a real difference to progress being made on the impact agenda, and enable the next phase: impact valuation. Let’s go!
Stephanie Robertson founded SiMPACT Strategy Group in 2004 and launched LBG Canada in 2005. As the first accredited SROI practitioner in North America, Stephanie is a leading professional in the area of social impact management and measurement.