Social Impact Terminology Explained

Get to know the most common monitoring and evaluation terms and understand the evolving nature of social impact measurement in the nonprofit sector.


Why measure social impact?

Everyone working to create change in the world—whether through a company, in their volunteer work as an individual, or through a nonprofit—is seeking to create social impact. But how can we ensure our limited resources are best spent? How do we know whether we’re actually solving the issues we intend to solve? And how would we know whether the work we’re doing is causing more harm than good? This is why it’s important to measure social impact. It’s important we understand the way our actions influence others, and its vital we learn about ways to improve our work and reduce potential harm.

Common impact measurement terms and tools

Below are some common terms you might want to understand before beginning to evaluate your social impact:

    Impact measurement is a term for all the work related to managing and assessing impact. It includes everything from routine program monitoring, learning, and improvements to resource-intensive impact evaluation.

    Theory of change is a description or illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. A theory of change should “fill in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what your organization does (your activities or interventions) and how your programs and services lead to desired goals being achieved (outcomes and impact). [Develop your nonprofit’s theory of change with this free worksheet.]

    Program monitoring is the routine, systematic collection of consistent and valid data from your programs. Program monitoring helps you track your progress and identify signals that indicate you need to course correct.

    Feedback involves systematically soliciting, listening to, and responding to the experiences of clients, program participants and about their perceptions of your program or service. Feedback can help source innovation, surface hidden problems, or amplify voices that are usually marginalized in the existing systems. [Download a simple infographic poster that will help you start the feedback process at your nonprofit.]

    Evaluation is the systematic application of scientific methods to assess the design, implementation, improvement, or outcomes of your program. For nonprofit organizations, the term typically means the kind of data collection and analysis conducted by an independent third party. Evaluation helps us gain a deep understanding of what works and why.

    Outputs are the immediate results from the strategic activities that you have direct control over. They are usually things you produce, and can easily be counted or measured.

    Outcomes are the the benefits, learning, or changes in behavior that are expected to happen in your target group as a result of your outputs. They are not as easily counted or measured, and usually require indicators.

    Indicators are specific measurable changes that can be seen, heard or read to demonstrate an outcome is being met. Solid indicators create a clear evidence base for your social model. Because perceptions of a program’s success are largely understood by what is measured, indicators should be selected carefully.

    Impact is the significant, lasting change that occurs at the community or societal level as a result of outcomes. Some people use the term more narrowly to refer to your organization’s specific and measurable role in affecting social change, requiring a counterfactual (or proof that the change wouldn’t have happened without your work).

    Logical Frameworks (or Logframes) is a planning tool which gives an overview of a project or program’s goals, inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, impacts and indicators. Most logic models also include a discussion of assumptions—the external factors or condition outside of the project’s direct control are necessary to ensure the project’s success.

Criticism of traditional approaches to monitoring and evaluation

Some have argued that monitoring and evaluation in the social sector is now primarily used to minimize risks and to hold people accountable rather than for genuinely reflecting upon achievements and improvement. Funding organizations increasingly expect organizations they support to measure their outcomes and impact, but the evidence on whether this traditional approach to measurement has led to improved performance is mixed.

A study of 30 leading US nonprofits found that measurement was useful to the organizations for improving outcomes, particularly when they: set measurable goals linked to mission (rather than trying to measure mission directly); kept measures simple and easy to communicate; and selected measures that created a culture of accountability and common purpose in the organization, thus helping to align the work of disparate units and chapters. However, implementing impact measurement sometimes leads to a focus on measurable outcomes at the expense of other important results, and it can overload organizations’ record-keeping capacity.

Andrew Natsios described the problem as “obsessive measurement disorder,” where “rules and reporting requirements [that] crowd out creative work such as activity identification and design and create perverse incentives which stifle innovation and lead to a focus on short term results.”

There is also the question about utilization: often despite expensive investments in evaluations organizations remain uncertain as to how to make programmatic or structural changes based on data, or the evaluations come too late in the process to influence meaningful improvements.

Jennifer Lentfer offers the concept of rigorous humility to help us prevent and mitigate an unhealthy fixation on evidence and measurement. “It means being humble about the limitations of what we can and cannot know. It means being rigorous about recognizing and responding to others’ full potential to be capable agents of change, with or without us,” she describes. Read more about the call for rigorous humility.

This article is adapted from GlobalGiving’s Social Impact Academy curriculum. Contact us to learn about how nonprofits in the GlobalGiving community can enroll in the next academy.

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