5 Things We Learned about Measuring Impact

By Paul Collier

A few weeks ago, Net Impact San Francisco hosted an interactive forum about The Future of Measuring Impact. We convened more than 50 professionals from nonprofit, corporate, philanthropist, and government backgrounds at the Impact Hub, a co-working space for social entrepreneurs and change-agents in San Francisco.

Over two hours of interactive discussions, Here’s what we learned:

  1. Measuring impact fundamentally means understanding your beneficiaries. When done well, it helps leaders get a better picture of customer or client needs and behaviors.
  2. Effective design does not always translate to effective implementation.  Assessing the positive potential of a product or service is important. But  even if the potential is great, the reality on the ground can be quite different.
  3. Good impact measurement combats bias. Asking probing questions while being sensitive to differences in cultures and circumstances takes time, experience, and wisdom.
  4. Impact happens over time. The ultimate impact of a product or service may not be evident for many years. Organizations may want to identify short and medium-term indicators of their long-term outcomes.
  5. Outcomes and outputs differ. While definitions vary, in general outputs are the amount of products or services provided.  Outcomes are the changes in knowledge, attitude, or behavior that result from these products or services.

We also recognized that measuring impact comes with some real challenges. Terminology around measuring impact varies, and measuring intangible qualities like influence is inherently challenging.  

Despite these challenges, the future of impact measurement looks promising. Cloud-based tech and mobile devices are making it easier than ever for organizations to collect and analyze data efficiently.  Professional organizations like Social Value InternationalData Analysts for Social Good, and others are supporting professionals in this space. And given the interest we saw amongst our attendees, the momentum will only keep growing.

We had fun with this event, and would love to know what you thought. Leave us your ideas, feedback, and comments below.