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31 Mar. 2015 | Comments (0)

Since impact definitions drive decisions and ultimately move dollars, a clear definition is necessary to develop an effective and measurable philanthropic strategy. Social impact definitions often aim to change behaviors or situations for those on the receiving end of an intervention. Download Framing Social Impact Measurement to find out more.

Donors have a particular obligation to seek clarity and consensus with regard to definitions of social impact, as their definitions often carry disproportionate weight. In particular, for donors focused on historically disempowered groups, it is critical to include those beneficiary voices in the impact definition process; otherwise, philanthropic efforts run the risk of recreating the same imbalanced power dynamics they are trying to counteract.

We explore this concept further in our recent report, Framing Social Impact Measurement, including by reviewing publicly available materials for ten largest foundations in the United States.

Language around impact is common, though not universal, and there is variation in the ways that foundations apply the term to their work. When they exist, publicly available impact definitions are most often foundation specific and related to particular areas, indicators, or outcomes that the foundation presumes to directly affect. Technical, conceptual definitions of impact (like those used by evaluation professionals) are less common, though some impact-focused foundations are exceptions.

There is a strong assumption that what the foundation is trying to achieve is a public good, and outcomes related to that good are evidence of the foundation’s impact. While in-depth discussions around mission definition, impact measurement, and related concepts may happen behind the scenes, public materials tend more toward the colloquial: “something good,” not necessarily “a measurable, attributable change.”

When they do discuss their own impact, foundations often explicitly reference outcomes of grantees. Focusing at the outcome level allows foundations to draw clear causal links—they provide dollar inputs, and their grantees return these outcomes. In some ways, this approach is also attribution focused, but the limits of measuring attribution set the boundary of impact definition, rather than the definition driving the limits of measurement.

About Framing Social Impact Measurement

Corporate philanthropy is increasingly aligned with business strategy, and evaluating the performance or value of a company often now includes evaluating its social impact. But what does that mean in practice? Impact can mean different things to different groups, depending on their objectives and their role in delivering a social program. And then there’s the question of data, and how it should be used to demonstrate impact. These and other topics are addressed in Framing Social Impact Measurement, which aims to help you think about social impact measurement in the right context. Explore our full portfolio of thought leadership on social impact measurement here.     

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

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