Impact Measurement of Social Innovation

30.06.2014 Blog

This blog has been written by Konstantinos Modikos and Christopher Kennard.

The evaluation of social impact is a very important aspect which is fundamental for every social innovation intervention. While the need to do so is imperative in order to shape future success stories, when it comes to the real hands on story things are more complicated. Social impact cannot be measured with standardized methods or technics just like the impact of any other intervention. In the economic world things are far more concrete and easy to be measured while in the social world the situation is more vague and loose. This happens because of social norms. Social norm is a key point to comprehend a set value and is a fluid notion because it varies between different social groups on different basis  (geographical, class etc). Furthermore, the evaluation of an intervention is taken for granted that will be based upon monetization principles, but these “hard” results (results interpreted in economic terms) do not show the appropriate flexibility since there are aspects and factors that cannot be transferred into hard results. As this is the status quo, there are seven issues we deemed most important in relation to the assessment of social innovation:

• Why is social innovation assessment important?
• Who is or should be measuring impact?
• How is social innovation impact measurement currently interpreted in existing research, policies and practice?
• Which methods are most commonly adopted?
• What are the implications of using these methods and tools?
• What are the main deficiencies of these methods and tools?
• Where the method could be most usefully applied?

The acceptance of quantitative results emerges as a common school of thought. The transfer of qualitative results into understandable data can prove itself a complicated task that needs specialization. However there are methods that ascertain qualitative results  (ex. Quality of life indicators, well being indicators). But these tools that can measure social innovation are not to be considered as a rulebook but rather as a stepping stone: a way to follow the assessment process of an intervention.  The aim of the evaluation is delivering results that are understood, easily transferred and used as a stand point for future interventions of the same nature. The development of the flexibility in the process of evaluation since as Mulgan says  “the measurement of social impact is difficult because metrics are not related to purely objective or tangible facts”. The needs for impact measurement cover not only the widely accepted needs but also the new and unique needs in many social fields for instance leisure time, gender equality, social inclusion to name but a few.

But what can be measured?. There are two main categories that can be measured. The outputs and the impact (also could found as outcomes) . The outputs are the tangible products of the social intervention process and they are easy to measure. On the other hand, the impacts are the effects that are delayed in time shown as direct or indirect results of the intervention. They are harder to observe follow and assess and also sometimes they are abstract or even intangible. Impact appears with many forms and types:

• Social Capital: specific benefits that flow from trust, reciprocity, information and cooperation within a social network
• Social Value: the measurement of importance or desirability of something to someone
• Social Worth: tacit, measurable and objective value of a SI impact based on a monetary scale (ex. Expenditure of man-hours)
• Awareness
• Increased Participation: willingness to accept new methods or practices which are an SI principle either for the “common good” or on a personal level.

The types of evaluation are ex-ante (during the planning of the intervention), interim (while the intervention is ongoing) and ex-post (when the intervention – or its specific phases are over). Some of the more commonly used tools for the impact measurement are SROI (Social Return on Investment), TOC  (Theories of Change), SCBA  (Social Cost Benefit Analysis). It is easy to observe that most of the tools used for evaluation come from economics (ROI, CBA etc). This is something not strange since these tools were developed originally from economic firms and funds (VCs, Business Angels etc) to support their feasibility studies and the impact measurement of their economic investments and interventions. However, these tools demonstrate a solid scientific background and great versatility and adopted – and adapted- by social firms. Consequently they are used for impact measurement of social innovation projects.

This point or clarification must be made due to the overlap between social projects and social innovation projects since all social innovation projects are social projects but not vice versa. Not all social projects are social innovation projects. What characterizes a project as a social innovation and not a social one is the process of intervention and not the impact (which often is bound to be the same). Innovations that are social happen to be social both in their ends and in their means.

Photograph by Klesta under a Creative Commons Licence on Flickr.