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From M&E To Impact Measurement

Last year showed a remarkable about-turn in awareness of the existence of social impact measurement. Reinoud Willemsen and Vuyelwa Madela explain the finer detail.
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Funders and implementing organisations – most notably non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs) and semi-governmental organisations – reached an irreversible turning point in 2015 with regards to understanding the necessity of engaging in social impact measurement. This year, it will find both a broader audience and a deeper rooting in and across organisations.

There is a significant difference between social impact measurement and monitoring and evaluation (M&E). M&E looks at a project in isolation, and evaluates it on how it is being or has been implemented, while social impact measurement is concerned with the project in its broader context, and evaluates what changes it has brought about to the beneficiaries and to society.

M&E fulfils an important function for organisations whose primary mission is to engage in activities directed at social causes, and this function is not set to change. What will change, is the scope of work that M&E managers will have to take on.

At present, the work is primarily focused on exactly what the term suggests: monitor, and then evaluate. It is an internal function designed to track whether the process has been followed as intended, and whether the determined outputs have been met. Resulting outcomes are at best reviewed against some form of baseline study, but the direct and wider context is hardly ever taken into account.

Social impact measurement, by its very nature, implicates reviewing outcomes against a thorough understanding of the baseline, while correcting for influencing aspects. It looks at whether outcomes and impact can be attributed to the project itself. By doing so, it reviews both the process and the design in relation to the context.

Most importantly, it is designed to provide insights into that increasingly recurring aspect: is the project making an impact? Engaging in social impact measurement leads to the provision of a wealth of information, which in return holds the power to change significantly both the strategy and the operational approach of an organisation.

It is our belief that, very soon, social impact measurement will be a permanent requirement for implementing organisations. The increasing importance of understanding social impact, preferably in a systematic and objective way, calls for an amendment of the scope of work of an M&E manager. With that comes an amendment of the term M&E itself.  The time has come to introduce measurement and improvement. So how does a corporation know which corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives to support? Or rather, should an existing initiative be supported or would the corporation need to create a new project with its own objectives in mind?

In order to figure out which project to support, a corporation could do a forecasted social return on investment (SROI) assessment.

As a point of takeoff, organisations of interest could be narrowed down, utilising a list of the corporation’s own criteria – organised, for example, by location or according to the nature of the organisation. Thereafter, they are evaluated as though they have already received financial support from the corporation.

Next up, the Theory of Change model (see sidebar) is employed. With the data gathered here, the evaluative SROI can be carried out. It calculates whether there will be a positive ROI for the corporation should they choose to invest in these organisations and, if a positive ROI is expected, what the value of it might be. It also shows us which activities should be added or removed from the organisation’s scope to optimise the projected investment.

Even though there may be subjective reasons as to why one organisation is chosen over another, organisations can also go the objective route and use the Theory of Change model and forecasted SROI assessments to choose the optimal one in which to invest.

Once this has been done there may, over time, be a need to “measure and improve” the investment. This brings us to the evaluative SROI assessment, which determines whether the investment already made has been as effective as predicted. Since CSI projects are often displayed in the media as once-off investments with extensive branding, one has to ask whether the beneficiaries have really obtained the best that a project has to offer.

Often, the project’s own facilitators are left with investments they would rather have appropriated to greater needs, equipment they may not have been trained to use, and, at times, those that require maintenance that they cannot afford.

Beneficiaries may be left with investments that are pleasing to the eye but have not, in any way, altered the quality of their lives: they may still suffer food insecurity; they may still have to manage on the same household income as before; and their level of skill and education might have remained unchanged after the investment, which could have utilised a large sum of money. Would this be deemed a worthwhile investment? Could one conclude – in such a case – that the organisation or its community then has ownership of the investment, and that it will continue to optimise its usage in the long term?

We need to move from ‘monitoring  and evaluation’ to ‘monitoring and improvement’; the Theory of Change provides an effective way to understand a nonprofit organisation at a glance; forecasted SROI assessment is an excellent tool for objective selection of organisations in which to invest; and evaluative SROI assessments monitor  and improve these investments.

Most importantly, the more input and autonomy an organisation and its community have over a project, the more successful and sustainable this investment will be. CSI is  not a jungle after all.

Reinoud Willemsen is MD and Vuyelwa Madela is Project Assistant at Behold SA the theory of change model. This involves holding a workshop, where the organisation’s Ultimate Goal is traced back to its Inputs. The headers “Ultimate Goal”, “Outcomes”, “Outputs”, “Activities” and “Inputs” are outlined, where the Ultimate Goal is the organisation’s mission.

The Outcomes are the non-numerical sub-goals that lead to the Ultimate Goal.

The Outputs are numerical values leading to the Outcomes, the Activities are those that lead to the actual Outputs, and the Inputs are the investments in time and capital that allow the Activities to be carried out.

This outline allows us to see whether or not the organisation’s Activities lead to their Ultimate Goal, which Inputs already exist within the organisation, and what their scope of financial need is.

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