What is social impact assessment?
Funders, social investors, nonprofits, and social enterprises are united by a common goal: social change. To reach this goal, the social sector must identify what approaches work — and why.
The goal of social impact assessment is to drive improvements that increase the value of programs to the people they serve. Social impact assessment helps organizations to plan better, implement more effectively, and successfully bring initiatives to scale. Assessment also facilitates accountability, supports stakeholder communication, and helps guide the allocation of scarce resources. (Download a history of social impact assessment)
There is a great deal of debate on how to measure social impact, due in large part to the difficult nature of assessing social change. It takes money. It takes time. It takes imagination and creativity.
In spite of these challenges, social impact assessment is not only necessary but critical. The social sector’s commitment is to serve its constituents and, while their lives cannot be measured in outputs and outcomes, they are ultimately the reason we should assess our work.
Listen to four social-sector leaders define and discuss the relevance of social impact assessment.
Our perspective: Learning Driven Assessment
McKinsey has designed an approach called Learning Driven Assessment to help foundations, nonprofits, social enterprises, and other stakeholders discover ways to increase impact.
We use the term Learning Driven Assessment to describe an assessment undertaken with a spirit of inquiry, not of judgment.
Assessment is often considered the last stage in the process. Once the project is completed, there is an evaluation, a final report, and the file is closed. Our approach captures critical information at all stages and in real time — as programs are conceived, while they are being designed, and during their execution — and captures knowledge from expectation “failures” as well as successes.
A Learning Driven Assessment identifies what works and why. It considers unintended consequences (both positive and negative) and environmental influences that enhance or undermine a program’s success—for example, does the community support it? And what do the intended beneficiaries think about it?
Exhibit: The Strategy Life Cycle
We believe assessment should be built into setting strategy, designing programs, and defining program execution. Once assessment results are collected and interpreted, the lessons should feed into the decision-making process. The findings should also be shared externally with donors, nonprofits, policy makers, academics, and the general public.
Our core beliefs about Learning Driven Assessment
Learning Driven Assessment is rooted in ten core beliefs about best-practice assessment.
- Hear the constituent’s voice
Involve constituents at every stage of the assessment.
- Exercise rigor within reason
Given the context of the effort, design the most credible assessment that is feasible.
- Drive assessment with learning
Address gaps in existing knowledge, understand what works and why, and harvest learning opportunities from “failures.”
- Don’t measure everything
Focus assessment on information that will truly be used.
- Assessment and strategy are inextricably linked
Design assessment and strategy together.
- Don’t let assessment sit on a shelf
Actively use the lessons learned through assessment to drive decisions about strategy, program design, and execution.
- Collaborate, don’t dictate
Cocreate the assessment with program leaders; make sure there are sufficient resources to execute it successfully.
- Build off and build up
Don’t assess what is already “known” in the sector; look beyond your own organization for answers.
- Borrow, don’t reinvent
Repurpose existing assessment tools when possible; don’t create new methods unless necessary.
- Foster a learning culture
In addition to tools and methods, assessment needs leadership that values learning from mistakes in order to succeed.
Tools and resources for assessing social impact
Search a database of 150 tools, methods, and best practices that can help you assess social impact for programs across all sectors and geographies.
Read more on the Foundation Center website