Why Do We Measure?

Photo via cc by Flickr user Colin_K

Reading a recent article from The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog and going on to read about an organization mentioned in the article led me to ask a question that is constantly on my mind: Why measure impact? This time, I was asking this question specifically in regards to for-profit companies measuring their social impact. The article, called Measuring social performance is difficult but essential, first acknowledges that while measuring for the triple bottom line (apparently the “real insiders” know it as 3BL), financial and environmental impacts are relatively easy to measure – relative to measuring social impacts, that is. The author writes that “[t]he measurement dilemma points to a larger conceptual problem. Where do a company’ social responsibilities start and stop?” Inserting my personal opinion here, I think the answer to this question is becoming more and more obvious. As the barriers between for profit and nonprofit and mission-driven organizations crumble and fall, this question will become outdated – don’t all companies serve society in someway by providing products or services to people? With this concept as a cornerstone of any organization, there are no boundaries for a company’s social responsibilities to start and stop – they will permeate company culture. From this standpoint, the question “why measure impact?” will also sound somewhat outdated – just as measuring financial returns is essential, so too will measuring social returns be – as a matter of course.

However, this does not actually answer the question. And there is a problem with that. I noticed this while reading up on the London Benchmarking Group and their impact measurement model. The article notes that LBG co-founder Mike Tuffrey says: “[t]here’s a lot of comparing apples with pears in terms of social impacts. Because companies can use LBG to consistently measure their social investments, this has provided a push in the right direction.” So one answer is that companies should measure impact so they can benchmark their impact against each other’s work in society. LBG has some simple case studies on its site to illustrate what they do (I suggest reading them, they are really short), but first head over to the “Why Use LBG?” section – could the full answer be there? You can learn that LBG “provides a robust and credible framework which measures the value and impact of community investment to business and society,” as well as “provides accurate and current information on how companies invest in society,” but these points don’t quite satisfy the question. What’s missing? The part about actual impact!!

Here’s my bottom line: we measure impact because it helps us learn how to determine if our impact is actually positive, how activities must change over time to continue making positive social impact, and (by sharing and publicizing measurements and assessments) how organizations can collaborate to increase the scope of their positive social impact.

My bottom line has been shaped by many different influences, one of which is an interview I did with Mark Hecker, founder of the DC-based nonprofit Reach, Inc. The video interview will be posted soon, and will expand upon the question “why measure impact?” I can’t wait to share it with everyone (coming soon!).

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One response to “Why Do We Measure?

  • Emily Rotella

    Follow-up to this posting in case it wasn’t clear: for-profits measure their finances in order to better their performance and guide their strategy for making money. This kind of betterment and guidance is what we should be looking for in measuring social impact as well.

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