Proving your social model; collecting your evidence base


Like any new business, the ‘piloting’ phase is the opportunity for you to prove that your idea can work in practice. In a commercial business, this is usually demonstrated by proving the commercial viability of your business model. The proof or ‘evidence base’ required for demonstrating the commercial viability of an organisation is typically defined by a number of key financial indicators that measure the success of your business model (e.g. profit and cash flow position).

A social venture must demonstrate more than simply commercial success; it must also prove the viability of its social model by demonstrating its social impact. However, whereas the viability of a business model can be tested and proven by a set of readily quantifiable financial indicators, the social model must be proven by demonstrating the social impact generated by the organisation. Social impact indicators were introduced in an earlier guide; this guide should help you to define the most suitable indicators for measuring your organisation’s social impact (i.e. the impact of your interventions). The difficulty in defining common indicators for measuring social impact has created a wide range of proposed solutions and methodologies to measuring social impact; some of these, such as social return on investment, are discussed here.

This guide will introduce a typical framework for setting out and documenting your social impact, along with some suggestions and tips for collecting data for social impact indicators. Remember; building a robust evidence base for your social impact will put you in a far stronger position for communicating the success of your organisation. This will help with marketing you product or service to the customers and beneficiaries, obtaining financial support (e.g. grant making or investment) and making strong evidence-based decisions for your enterprise.

Social impact - building your evidence base

Our social model guide introduced a process for deciding on the most suitable social impact indicators for your organisation and the challenges of obtaining data for outcome indicators (weaker link to intervention and difficult to measure) versus output indicators (strong link to intervention and easier to measure). Once you have defined your social impact indicators, the next step is to set specific social impact goals for the pilot period.

You should aim to set clear goals across all you social impact indicators; both outcome and output based. This will often require you to establish ‘benchmarks’ for each indicator, enabling you to set goals based on a change from the benchmark, thereby measuring the impact you have generated through your interventions. Remember, you must also consider any ‘natural change- what might have happened anyway’ that may occur during the pilot period and deduct this from your identified impact.

To complicate matters further, in some cases your organisations intervention may have a delayed outcome; this may require you to monitor and measure the indicator(s) for a period after the original intervention.

Once you have defined your social impact indicators, your benchmark measurements and your goals for the pilot period, it’s worth pulling this information together into a simple table. The diagram below provides an example of how this table might look for Social Venture D that provides advice, information and support to refugees and migrants in city ‘y’.

social impact building your evidence base diagram

If you wish to build from an established framework for collecting defining your key indicators and collecting your data, have a look at the Strategy and Impact section of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) website; they provide an introduction to a number of established tools and techniques for developing your monitoring and evaluation framework.

Tips for collecting and recording social impact

  • Start early: Integrate social impact measurement into your planning process. Don’t wait until after you have started your pilot period; it will more difficult to implement the recording systems and process.
  • Collecting and interpreting social impact data: collecting data is never an easy job. It requires time, commitment and the appropriate systems and processes. However, whenever possible you should always aim to make sure your data is:
  • Robust: from a quality data source/ robust collection of internal data
  • Relevant to the social impact indicator you are trying to measure.
  • Up to date: for the period you are trying to measure.
  • Objective: whenever possible the data should be collected in an objective manner or obtained from an objective source.

Be careful interpreting data patterns - try not to make untested assumptions or generalisations based on small samples of data. When measuring outcomes, be sure to consider the ‘cause and effect’ of the outcome you are measuring. The change or outcome you are measuring will usually involve a number of contributing factors; i.e. not just your intervention. At this stage, don’t get too bogged down in worrying about proof; i.e. ‘it was your intervention that causes the outcome’, it’s fine to say that your intervention contributed to the overall outcome; just make sure you identify the other contributing factors.

Look at what others do:

It’s worth spending some time looking at how some organisations approach social impact measurement and define indicators. Some examples include:

  • Outcome stars
  • SOUL Record
  • Measuring soft outcomes and distance travelled
  • Social return on investment
  • Social accounting and audit

The NCVO website summarises a number of these tools and techniques.

Types of information/data you could collect

There are a number of different data/ information sources you might consider using, depending on the nature of the social impact indicator you are trying to record. These sources of information are typically split into two categories: from data sources:

  • Internal: e.g. products sold, number of beneficiaries served.
  • External: e.g. Departmental of health statistic, local authority records, market research data.
  • From people: external stakeholders e.g. beneficiaries etc.
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups

Less is more: don’t try and record everything.

Work out the best indicators for measuring your impact and focus on those- less is usually more. Ask yourself the question- ‘will this provide me with evidence of our social impact’. It’s far better to record a small number of robust, relevant and up-to-date sources of data. It is also worth considering the audience that you will communicate this information to- what level of detail will they need? Try and keep it simple as possible.

  • Set up some simple systems and process: depending on the social impact indicator, you may need to record the data or information at different points in time. With this in mind, it’s worth setting up some simple processes for recording these indicators, making sure you capture the right data, at the right point in time. When measuring outputs from your activities (e.g. products sold, number of service beneficiaries etc.) it may be worth setting up a simple spreadsheet or database to help you record data on an on-going basis.
  • Allocate some resources: social impact measurement and evaluation is fundamental to proving the viability of your idea or concept. At this early stage, it is worth considering how much resource (time or money) you may need to allocate to this activity, making sure you consider the potential associated costs such as; internal data collection systems, purchasing external reports, setting up beneficiary questionnaires/ interviews and statistical analysis. Just as many organisations chose to buy-in financial accounting skills to produce financial reports; it may be worth appointing a professional from outside the organisation to evaluate your social impact. Ultimately, the choice of external or internal assessment is usually determined by the organisation’s resources, conditions set by funders, or internal capacity (skills) to carry out the evaluation.
  • Ethical considerations: only ever use fair, accurate and honest data. Fictitious data is nearly always found out, risking the credibility of your organisation, and potentially damaging its future. Due to the sensitive nature of some information that you may be collecting, always refer to data protection laws to make sure you manage and use your data legally.

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