Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How do we define and measure social impact?

This month's Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance (NMBA) topic relates to social impact and how we define and measure it.

So, what is social impact? Well, I did what anyone that has access to internet would do, I googled it. It seems there isn't really a clear, precise definition for it. I couldn't even find a definition on Wikipedia - the closest I got was Social Impact Assessment or Social Impact Theory. So, I am going to go with a mish-mash of definitions and partial definitions I found:

Social impact = the influences or affects an organization or group can have to impact people's lives. This influence or affect increases with immediacy and strength, and can have both positive and negative social consequences.

So, to use an easy example: More and more people continue to join Twitter because they know more people who are on Twitter, their close friends are now on Twitter, and everyone seems to be joining Twitter. Hence, one would say the social impact of Twitter is quite large and continues to grow as its strength and immediacy grows.

For nonprofits, this would be used more in the sense of how a nonprofit taking advantage of social change to make a difference in people's lives.

So, how would one measure social impact?

Well, since social impact is more that just evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention it would make sense that a simple evaluation wouldn't be enough.

An interesting concept I came across was that one could put together an impact map, which will help organizations to clearly show relationships between inputs (resources) and outputs (activities, outcomes). Basically it helps an organization understand how they create change.

The impact map could be combined with a social impact assessment, which "includes the processes of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions (policies, programs, plans, projects) and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. Its primary purpose is to bring about a more sustainable and equitable biophysical and human environment." This would allow a nonprofit to map the relationships and measure the change that resulted from those relationships.

A more government-type perspective on social impact assessment can be found here. Some may also go as far as measuring the financial return on a social impact using a social return on investment.

Check out some other perspectives on social impact and how to measure it from NMBA bloggers:

What is Social Impact? by Nonprofit Periscope

Measuring Social Impact (wait…what is social impact?) by Onward and Upward