Measure your impact in 6 steps

Impact measurement is critical to solving the problem, as well as enticing investors, engaging customers and planning for the future.

As a social enterprise, your organization exists to solve a social or environmental problem. You’ve clearly articulated your mission and built a business model around it. But are you measuring your impact? How are you tracking your progress toward your goal? Impact measurement is critical to solving the problem, as well as enticing investors, landing grants, engaging customers and planning for the future.

While driving to the hall of fame with his family, Yogi Berra reportedly told his wife “we’re lost, but we’re making good time!” Like Berra, you may have an exciting destination in mind, and you may be driving full speed ahead. But if you aren’t driving in the right direction, you’re wasting your time. It’s one thing to have clearly articulated goals, but you also need mile markers along the way to ensure you’re on the right track.

Let me give you a more relevant example. I once volunteered for a youth mentoring program with a noble goal: to improve vulnerable kids’ performance in school and to prevent delinquency. The organizational model relied on the commonsense idea that mentoring would leave a lasting impact on these kids’ lives. In reality, though, research suggests that the effect of youth mentoring on outcomes is dependent upon time. In other words, when mentors are involved in kids’ lives for less than 13 months, the results are dramatically different than when they are involved for longer periods of time. Shorter relationships are actually detrimental to youth development, while longer relationships have a positive, but weak, effect on educational and delinquency outcomes. The problem with this organization was that most of their mentors were college students who signed on for a single semester or school year, well below that 13 month threshold. Because they didn’t measure kids’ school attendance, high school completion or juvenile delinquency records, they had no way of knowing what their impact actually was. If they had built an impact measurement into their programming, they could have adapted their model — by recruiting older mentors or increasing the minimum commitment — to create more positive outcomes.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming, rather than proving, outcomes. In fact, most social enterprises rely on anecdotes to convey their impact. While these stories have their place, they cannot substitute for impact measurement.

If you’re new to impact measurement, here’s a quick and dirty guide to help you get started:

  1. Do some research. Take the time to investigate the problem you’re solving and the solution you’re proposing. Interventions always have unintended consequences, as the mentoring example illustrates. It’s best to have an idea of whether A causes B (and under what conditions!) before you even think about impact measurement.
  2. Define what success looks like, and make it as concrete as possible. Want to encourage educational achievement? Maybe success looks like an increase in high school graduation rates or improved test scores.
  3. Now imagine how you could measure that success. It doesn’t have to be a single metric. In fact, a variety of measures is best. We’ll call these our impact indicators. Your impact indicators should be specific, clear, and measurable. They should also be outcomes rather than outputs. So in the case of the mentoring example above, you would want to track kids’ grades and delinquency rates, not just hours of mentorship or number of mentors.
  4. Track your impact indicators over time. Figure out how often you want to measure your outcomes. Weekly? Monthly? Annually? Designate someone to be in charge of tracking and analyzing your data.
  5. Check in. At least once a year, meet with your staff to go over your impact results. Is there anything surprising? Do you need to update your measures? Do any patterns stand out?
  6. Report your findings, and invite feedback. Publish a report detailing the impact of your interventions and programs. Put it on your website and social media pages, send it to donors and investors and circulate it internally. Nothing is ever perfect. Bring outsiders into the conversation, and they’ll likely offer insights you’d never consider.

Helpful tips for along the way:

  • Listen to your constituents. What outcomes are they interested in? Understanding their needs will help you focus your efforts to create maximum social value.
  • Don’t forget about stories. Measuring quantitative impact is important, but not everything can be measured. A good impact report includes both quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Measurement is an ongoing process. Commit to revisiting your impact indicators on a regular basis. Your impact data will be a rich source of information, letting you know which initiatives were successful and which fell flat.
  • Be transparent. Store your data in Google Drive and share it with your employees. They may be able to offer insights, explanations or ideas for new impact measures.

In addition to attracting investors, funders, and partnerships, impact measurement helps you plan for the future. Above all, impact measurement allows you to improve impact for the people you serve. We manage what we measure. If you don’t know where you stand, you can’t plan your next step.