Defining social impact indicators, setting targets and refining your social model

In another guide we introduced a process for developing your organisation’s social model. In the piloting phase you will need to begin testing this model in the real world. This should include some definitive targets (operational and social/environmental) you aim to deliver during your piloting phase.

Setting clear social/environmental impact targets, along with your method for measuring success towards these targets, will enable you to critically assess the success of your social model. This will enable you to prove that your social model works and refine the model based on learning’s from the piloting process.

This guide will introduce a method for defining social impact indicators and setting targets.

What is social impact and what are social impact indicators?

At a very simplistic level, ‘social impact’ is the social change that an organisation creates through its actions- i.e. the impact of its interventions. Depending on the nature of your interventions (defined in your theory of change), the social impact of your organisation may include things that happen sometime after the actual intervention and / or affect a wider group of individuals than just your chosen target population. Let’s use the example of the interventions outlined in the theory of change of Social Venture D - an organisations that supports migrants and refugees (M&R's):

Local impact and implications diagram

The intervention ‘Support provided to M&Rs to enable access to employment and civic participation rights and entitlements’ has a number of defined, immediate interventions and results (these are often referred to as outputs). However, the real impacts and changes (usually referred to as the outcomes) are likely to happen later down the road and may also be more diverse in their nature. For example, ‘M&Rs becoming economically active’ may have a positive impact on the health of the local economy.

Social impact indicators are the specific, measurable things that you plan to track and which will allow you to assess the effectiveness (the impact) of your interventions. The indicators defined for a specific organisation will be dependent on the access/ ability to collect certain information and the audience to whom these indicators will need to be communicated. For example, the indicators you communicate to a Local Authority commissioner may be very different to those that you might want to communicate to the general public.

How to define social impact indicators

The best way to define your organisation’s social impact indicators is to refer back to your social model’s theory of change and theory of action. These elements of your social model should outline the key activities and interventions that you might wish to measure (outputs) and the corresponding outcomes you are aiming to achieve. The purpose of your social impact indicators is to measure the outputs and outcomes achieved by your organisation, creating a clear evidence base for your social model.

Defining and collecting data for output indicators is usually easier, often requiring your organisation to monitor interventions and results of these interventions. Although this information is often valuable, it does not necessarily measure whether the organisation is achieving its desired outcomes or ‘goal state’. Progress towards these goals must be measured through outcome indicators. Outcome indicators are often hard to collect and will usually have a weaker link to your organisations specific intervention(s) – often this is due to the fact that the real outcomes (benefits) happen elsewhere to the place you deliver your interventions and / or they happen sometime after you deliver your interventions. However, these indicators (if you can measure them somehow) will be of fantastic value to you in communicating the real overall social impact of your activities and progress towards your organisations mission statement.

The diagram below demonstrates the ‘output to outcome continuum’ using the example of Social Enterprise D and demonstrates the increasing difficulty in capturing outcome-type data versus output-type data:

Indicators of social impact diagram

Remember, when measuring outcome indicators you should be measuring the incremental social impact you have delivered above the ‘norm’; i.e. you should discount ‘what was happening anyway’. For example, if the proportion of M&Rs in employment has been increasingly steadily by 1% per year for the last 3 years, your organisation should look to measure any difference above this 1% trend. For more detail on finalising and measuring your social impact indicators see here.

Refining your social model

As introduced above, setting clear social/ environmental impact targets, along with a method for measuring success towards these targets, is one of the best methods for assessing the success of your social model. As you monitor and evaluate the impact of your organisation’s interventions, it is likely there will be an on-going iterative refinement of your social model. This process should be tightly aligned to the business planning and evaluation cycle.

It is important to exercise caution when considering changes or refinements to your social model. During the pilot stage, aspects of your work may suggest new or alternative types of social impact that you had not anticipated. If you feel that this may justify changing your core social model, it may be worth testing first with stakeholder (e.g. beneficiaries and / or customers) before implementing any significant changes. Try to avoid basing major strategic decisions around changes to your social model upon anecdotal, untested and potentially unrepresentative evidence.

Refinement of your social model is typically driven by an increased understanding of the needs / problems you are trying to address (usually for a target population – your beneficiaries). Typical refinements usually involve:

  • Addressing needs / solving problems more effectively – improving the quality of the outcomes
  • Delivering your product / service more efficiently- allowing the organisation to increase the scale of its impact
  • Prioritising your interventions to focus on more specific, higher ‘quality’ outcomes

Any significant changes to an organisation’s social model should be evaluated using the social change model, to document and articulate the expected outcomes in relation to the changes and set appropriate indicators and targets.

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