Fools Gold? – Reflecting on the recent rush to value social impact

By Stuart Thomason

The European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA)
impact measurement workshop

Brussels is not immediately synonymous with social innovation. A brief survey of our friends, family and colleagues before departure summarised the tourist options well, with specific instructions on how to avoid European Bureaucracy and which train to take onto Bruges. This image of a stale, grey landscape was at odds with our excitement at the fact that Belgium had just celebrated one year without central government, something any community activist would surely only dream of.

So to the topic of our visit – The European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) was hosting its first impact measurement workshop, as the precursor to the launch of their social impact network. The topics included a discussion around the current tools being used to help organisations track their social, financial and environmental impact and an in-depth review of 4 tools in particular, Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS), The Balanced Scorecard, E-valuator and the Social Impact Analysis Association (SIA) Following on from this was more an intense discussion around attribution and standardisation.

Jargon aside, the event was well pitched to the audience and was a clear indication that across Europe there is a huge demand to learn more about how to ‘prove’ the social impact of venture philanthropy. Sadly, there was no space to discuss more chaotic community projects and no radical underbelly of impact evaluators present, just a basic appraisal of what is working and what isn’t in this emerging area of work.

The danger was therefore that the conference aligns to earlier expectations of creating a bureaucratic rather than a fully useable framework and we remain concerned that the audience left inspired by examples, but confused regarding the practical application of methods.

The opportunity for The Young Foundation therefore is not to try to fill the space with more impact measurement tools, but to provide an appraisal of existing methods and help ventures and their stakeholders navigate their way through the most appropriate tools which will genially aid their project rather than add more paperwork and discourage innovation.

The recent gold-rush to social return on investment (SROI) in the UK is a sure sign that expectation / desire for social impact tools and the methodologies behind them are not well aligned and the central desire to design a ‘silver bullet’ for social impact measure tools is certainly misplaced. While the approach is well founded on core principles, the practical application often leads to more questions than answers and has often been applied to early in an organisations development.

With this in mind we’ve started a project to populate a map of social ventures, based on the stage of development and type of impact tool they have adopted with an accurate reflection of the pros and cons of each approach. We hope this will lead to an improved (and less evangelical) dialogue around this topic and a more informed discussion regarding the use of the ‘right’ method at the ‘right’ time’.

For more information contact stuart.thomason@youngfoundation.org

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