Looking for a Common Language: The Power of a Conversation

Image by Jon Assink, found on Flickr

Within the Columbia Business School sits the Research Initiative on Social Entrepreneurship, or RISE. In 2004, the initiative co-organized a conversation (hosted by The Rockefeller and Goldman Sachs Foundations) among grantmakers and investors on the topic of Social Impact Assessment. The conference report that RISE makes available here, as well as on their website under Key Past Publications on the homepage.

The conference participants recognized that “while many methodologies exist [for assessing social impact], there is minimal consensus across the sector on how to assess social impact.” No surprise there, right?  The report is the beginning of a dialogue to address the fact that “in the absence of a common measure (like shareholder value) investors and grantmakers are making it up as they go along.”

One thing I wanted to point out about this report is its glossary, which includes this little gem:

Social Impact Assessment (SIA)

Using any of the tools of social science, program evaluation, or business practice to determine the social outputs, outcomes, or impact of an intervention, program, organization, or company.

This seems to be different to how Mission Measurement (which I wrote about recently ) talks about impact assessment as a driver for strategy. But what is great about this report are the 4 case studies included, with focuses on Measurement to Management, Finding the Right Measures, Improving the Rigor of Impact, and Balancing Credibility and Feasibility. I love reading about organizations that are finding their way through social impact assessment.

Another thing I like about this report is that it identifies four areas of challenges AND opportunities – the conceptual, operational, structural, and practical parts of starting and improving social impact assessment. Conceptually, the sector and the general public need to have an idea and a vision of what social impact assessment looks like, and set standards that can be referenced. Operationally, tools and systems that are feasible for organizations must be created, tested, implemented, and improved. Structurally, relationships between organizations and sectors and systems and metrics need to be clearer and more established. Practically, we have to be realistic and rigorous in our evaluations and activities.

Not to say that these challenges can’t be met, and that we can’t be hopeful and ambitious while being practical. In fact, the report mentions that we are in a window of opportunity for this dialogue to continue and for new knowledge and experience to flourish.

This report represents the beginning of a conversation about Social Impact Assessment. I love the idea that we should be having a constant dialogue about this subject. Help me start a branch of this conversation now!!

What organizations do you know on the cutting edge of Social Impact Assessment?


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