Mapping your impacts: the first step in effective social impact measurement

Stephanie Poppendoerfer, Consultant, Advisory Services, gives her advice on making the best start on social impact measurement.

According to the influential Edelman Trust Barometer, 81% of people have more confidence in companies which can demonstrate a positive impact on society. It represents a great opportunity for companies for which acting responsibly is a core value.

That’s just one of the reasons why social impact measurement is important – others include informing business decisions and ensuring your activity really does have the impact you want. But carrying out social impact measurement effectively presents one of the biggest challenges for companies and NGOs. 

Without a sound start and clearly defined objectives, measurement can become a complex and expensive exercises that is neither robust nor effective. Here’s some guidance on creating a sound base for your measurement strategy.

Maps and models

Before trying to measure them, it’s crucial to understand and map the different impacts you might have. This involves identifying the different impacts you have, and their relationship to each other, as well as to the activity you carry out. This information will allow you to assess both what you want to, and you can, measure.

Knowing this will ensure that you only collect the data you need. It’ll also give you confidence that any impact you measure comes as a result of your activities, rather than extraneous factors.

There are various ways of mapping impacts, based on a number of different models. A common type is the straightforward “inputs, outputs, impacts” model.

In these, inputs are the resources a company invests to support a community activity - cash, time, in-kind and management cost. Outputs are the activities delivered - numbers reached, funds raised resulting from the contributions made. Impacts then capture was has changed for individuals, organisations and the company, in the short or longer-term, as a result.

For individuals, impacts could be a new skill they have acquired, improvement in health or a new job in the long term. For community organisations they could be a better management process or, in the longer term, the ability to employ more staff. And impacts experienced by the company itself could be higher productivity, decrease in absence rates, better reputation or higher employee engagement.

Pick your model

The global standard for measuring corporate community investment with this type of model is The London Benchmarking Group (LBG) framework. The benefit of using this is that it ensures a consistent approach to the measurement of corporate community investment, allowing it to be benchmarked against other companies’ activities.

Its input-output-impact model can also be applied to measuring impacts outside of community investment and due to its straightforward nature is a good method to use when beginning impact measurement.

Other variations include the WBCSD model for measuring socio-economic impact, which looks at inputs, outputs, outcomes and impacts.

In this model, outcomes are what happened, i.e. the immediate changes on the target population. Impacts are then goal level-changes, i.e. the change that you hoped to result from your activity.

For example, in a programme to reduce waterborne diseases in developing countries, inputs would include the time and money spent to develop and install a system to purify water. The number of systems installed would be the output while the outcome would be the number or percentage of people who gained access to purified water as a result of the inputs. The impact, based on the goal of your intervention, would be the percentage reduction in the incidence of disease caused by contaminated water.

As this example shows, the closer you move towards your impacts, the harder it becomes to be sure of the cause-effect-relationship between them and your activity. This makes it very important to be clear and explicit about any assumptions made if your impact measurement is to be transparent, and therefore trustworthy.

The Theory of Change

One powerful way to visualise the path from your activities or inputs (e.g. investing in employment training to ex-offenders) to the impacts that are your ultimate goal (e.g. ex-offender obtains long-term employment) is using a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change (TOC) serves as a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to be brought about in a particular context. TOCs are usually shown as diagrams, making it easy to see the causal links between each step.

Theory of Change example diagram


The figure above* shows an example Theory of Change for a programme to help children who are falling behind at school because of problems at home.

Creating a TOC starts with what is hoped to be achieved at the end – in the example above, improvement in children’s grades and school work. Working backwards, each step needed to happen in order for this end goal to be achieved is worked out. The result will be a list of all the intermediate outcomes required.

The next step is then to link the outcomes and establish an order between them by identifying the causes and effects. Next the outputs which lead to the intermediate outcomes are identified, and finally the inputs that give rise to those output.  These will be the basis for the activities undertaken.

A TOC is a powerful tool for designing and developing a strategy, and will provide the basis for its evaluation. It can also help to identify the key outcomes and impacts of your programme and is particularly effective at laying bare the assumptions behind your reasoning – the cause-effect relationship you believe exists.

Creating a TOC for more complex programmes may seem difficult, but doing so will return real value by forcing you to take a clear and simple view of your programmes, and highlighting the key aspects of your interventions.

Don't forget your stakeholders

Engaging stakeholders is essential for accurate impact mapping.  Talking to the people involved in or affected by your activity is vital in order to understand the impacts they are experiencing and validate the assumptions made in your model. As well as double-checking that the cause-effect relationships your model is based on are correct, speaking to stakeholders also helps ensure no unexpected impacts are missed out.

Techniques for gathering insights from and information on the impacts experienced by stakeholders include workshops, focus groups, surveys and interviews. It’s important to keep an open mind during this process, and ensure that your own assumptions don’t lead the conversations.  This can lead to unforseen impacts being missed, and even to stakeholders reporting impacts they have not actually experienced in response to leading questions.

The information can then be used to build and test your impact map making sure you capture all important benefits your programme has for the different stakeholders involved. Good impact measurement involves more talking to people, and less manipulating of excel spreadsheets or modelling of data than most people expect.

Your impact map can help you to see what impacts you have, decide what impacts are possible to capture and how.  That will give you the robust measurement framework you need to start collecting and analysing data, with the confidence that it will be valid.  Those transparent and trustworthy results will then tell a powerful story about your impact.

Impact is the hardest thing to measure but it really shows what has changed as a result of your activity or intervention. To learn more about social impact measurement, join our webinar: Measuring social impact, understanding value, at 2pm on 3 February, or come along to the Social Value Summit on 11 February.

If you would like bespoke support and guidance with your social impact measurement we are happy to help you. Please contact at BITC’s Advisory Services Team.


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