Measuring Social Impact: Does Anyone Get It?

As the fiscal cliff…curb… slope…ravine… whatever… looms large, and calls increase to look to cutting or trimming tax deductibility of giving, I have found embedded in these “conversations” (often turning into diatribes) an undercurrent of judgement about what counts as having social impact.  Which organizations “deserve” tax-advantaged status for donors because they do real good for society?  What I have found is that these articles, posts and opinion pieces (here’s a link to just one of many)  betray much more about the writer’s own philanthropic motivations – what do they consider valuable “social good”? – but also points to the dearth of good, common practice in how we measure social impact.

The “elder statesman” of this world is clearly Guidestar, that was founded to be the arbiter of good practice, setting standards for cost to raise a dollar, the percentage of budget dedicated to program, the main conduit to organization’s 990 form.  What has ended up happening for so many is a massaging not of their programs but of how data will be reflected on the 990 to “rate” better in the Guidestar world.  Additionally, there is no room in this world for organizations at different phases of their development – who need to invest more in infrastructure to get off the ground and do well as they do good.  Does it benefit anyone to penalize organizations for wanting to create a solid foundation?  Must we rush to throw programs out into the world, while keeping overhead painfully low?

New player on the scene is GiveWell, that not only wants to help donors find high impact organizations but highlight those that are under-capitalized now.  Admirable!  I’m in.  But, even a quick tour of this site finds that the folks at GiveWell – who are, to their credit, doing an enormous amount of research – have brought their own prejudices to the table about how work should be done, not just who is doing their work in their own sector well.  Is it really true that those doing work to cure blindness are objectively more important and offer a higher return on investment than those training and deploying seeing eye dogs?  Hogwash.  Of course, this overlooks the fact that not all forms of blindness can be cured, and sets aside the increased earning power of those who are able to reach higher levels of integration and productive contribution into their community with a guiding eyes dog.  This is but one example of the one-size-fits-all approach to how problems ought to be solved obscures what could be truly useful approach.

We can’t allow ourselves to be stymied by the fact that this is hard work, creating social impact take nuance, tremendous focus and strategic thought.  I feel more Scrooge than like one of the Who’s down in Who-ville on this topic… Who is approaching this well?  What is the way to solve this challenge more universally, so that when public arena needs us to stand up for our sector, we are well prepared to do so?

 

One thought on “Measuring Social Impact: Does Anyone Get It?

  1. Check out this podcast on economists providing FREE services to NGOs in the UK to help answer the question of impact. I’m disturbed to hear the interviewers discuss the potential reason why there hasn’t been the kind of interest in receiving these high quality, free services that they thought there would be… nonprofits don’t really want to know the impact out of fear that it’s not what they hope it is. Here’s hoping that the real reason is that people don’t know about the service. http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/11/29/free-conomics-a-new-marketplace-podcast/

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