Measuring impact is a complex, costly matter. It gets even more intricate when an organization tries to measure Social Return on Investment (SROI).

We all know that measurement should be an integral part of any program. Through measurement you can assess your program’s results, success, as well as make necessary adjustments and improvements.

While working for over a year in the social sector in United States, I was perplexed to see that rarely organizations (as well as companies) focus on impact-based measurement and instead rely on numbers. Don’t get me wrong, coming from a country where simple tracking is rarely done, the American reality in this sense was tenfold ahead and measuring indicators such as number of volunteers, number of partners, number of hours, number of projects/activities is very important.

So what is my problem with numbers? Here are just two of them:

1. Obsession with quantifying results. More and more organizations engage in a tighter fight for funding and heavily rely on quantifying societal impact. Therefore we see many nonprofits boosting their metrics to keep donors and other stakeholders satisfied. The latter are to blame as much as nonprofits for this. I have witnessed too many times donors simply copy-pasting their beneficiaries’ data into their own reports or accepting the established status-quo. Sad.

Here is an example how a nonprofit shows its impact on local development: “increased the amount of grants for women in rural areas by 45 percent to start small businesses”. Although on first hard this signified that while NPO increased its funding which translated in more businesses created locally, a deeper introspection depicts that most of businesses failed within months, women were not trained, a considerable amount of husbands quit their jobs since women started working and level of domestic abuse increased considerably. Not exactly the “side effects” donors look for, right?

2. Incorrect or incomplete measurement. Although rarely there is widely-recognized methodology for measuring certain indicators, it is often up to the nonprofit to determine how it measures impact, mobilization and engagement (most of the time to its own advantage). Therefore I witness more cases than I would like to when nonprofits measured incorrectly results and manipulated “formulas” of measurement.

So in conclusion, what are some suggestions for things to work the way they are supposed to work?

  1. Be more transparent about the way performance and impact indicators are calculated.
  2. Have a measurement person or department which is properly trained and schooled in the field.
  3. Donors to set a concrete set of project impact indicators and perform arbitrary audits.
  4. Focus on specific measurable results as well as societal impact and be realistic about them.
  5. Just be honest. Be honest to yourself, to the people you serve and to your sponsors.

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