Define and measure social impact

“How do you define and measure social impact?” « A. Lauren Abele -As I’ve spent the last year figuring out where I want to direct my career, I have come to the conclusion that social impact metrics and performance evaluation is the path I want to take. So I was very excited when I found out that my first post as part of the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance would be addressing just that.

I want to preface my answer by saying that I am a total nerd–so looking at numbers, evaluating statistical relationships, and quantifying values are all very exciting to me. But why do these things matter to nonprofit organizations which are providing social good? If Girls on the Run (GOTR)–”a nonprofit prevention program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running”–provides a great after-school program, does it really matter what the impact is? Shouldn’t we just be glad that they are providing this service?

The State of Measuring Social Impact

One of the main reasons that social impact measurement is not very well developed is that oftentimes nonprofits are granted a sort of amnesty from evaluation and critique because of their mission-based structure. There is an attitude of: “If you are doing something good, we really aren’t going to be too hard on you.” The second reason is that quantifying the value of social goods is a very difficult and often contentious issue.

Your Economics 101 class will always bring up the “how much is a human life worth?” argument. Most people would say “priceless,” but health insurance companies have a real dollar amount they ascribe to the value of human life which is what they base their premiums off of.This is obviously an ethical and moral issue for many people and has been the source of much academic debate.

In the case of Girls on the Run a question might be: (a) How do you measure the self-respect of preteen girls?  and, (b) How much is that self-respect worth?

Defining Social Impact

How a nonprofit defines social impact must relate back to its mission statement. Let’s look again at Girls on the Run’s mission:
Girls on the Run is a non-profit prevention program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running. Our curricula address all aspects of girls’ development – their physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being.

Based on their mission, does it make sense for GOTR to do a study to see how many of their participants end up competing in college-level sports? Although an effect of the program may be to encourage more girls to participate in athletics that is not the mission of the organization nor the goal of its programming; therefore, this is not a good definition of the program’s social impact.

What would be an appropriate definition of effectiveness? GOTR’s mission implies that “self-respect and healthy lifestyles” encompass several factors: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being. While all of these things will probably mean different things to different girls, this will be the basis of how the organization will define the impact of its programs. They may define positive impact as girls who have high self-esteem, are proud of themselves, are empowered and actively empower others. How they actually define social impact is rather more dire

Some Sad Facts For Today’s Girls:

  • Three million young Americans seriously considered suicide in 2000 and of those, over 1 million actually tried to kill themselves.
  • Girls were twice as likely as boys to report contemplating suicide.
  • Body dissatisfaction and dietary restraint are predictors of depression in girls.
  • Almost two-thirds of girls in 5th-12th grades are dissatisfied with their body shape and want to lose weight.
  • Girls as young as five form negative self-images based on their weight.
  • Among girls, an emphasis on popularity and slimness along with increased television viewing are linked to low self-esteem.

If You Want To Help Change That, Here Is Some Good News:

  • Girls who participate in physical activities are 40% less likely to smoke, have higher levels of self-esteem, better body images, and lower levels of depression.
  • Girls who have experienced emotional trauma respond positively to physical fitness programs.
  • Girls who participate in physical activities are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior during adolescence.
  • Girls who participate in physical exercise have better relationships with parents, get better grades, are less likely to use drugs and are less depressed than girls who don’t.

By defining their social impact, GOTR has made a very strong case for why its after school running program is necessary. Now the trick will be ensuring that the program is actually impactful.

Measurement: Why bother?

If it seems clear that you are doing something beneficial, why do you need to bother investing time, money, and energy in determining how to measure something as abstract as self-respect?  It’s a good question and I have two answers.

You have high cholesterol and your doctor advises that you switch to a diet of only Cheerios. Two months later you go back and still have high cholesterol. Are you going to keep forgoing other foods in favor of Cheerios? Hopefully not. Hopefully you either (a) get a new doctor or (b) you and your doctor devise Plan B and will have another follow-up to re-evaluate your progress.

Evaluation, trial-and-error, and analysis make so much sense in the case of health, why not social impact? The only difference here is that centuries of medical research give doctors the sophisticated ability to measure cholesterol and provide baselines for comparison. In the Middle Ages, I doubt you would have stopped eating those Cheerios. As far as social impact measurement goes, this won’t require centuries of work but rather a commitment to the importance of social impact metrics, some experts, and some creativity.

GOTR has defined the impact they want to have, but now they want to measure their impact. So what do they do? Call in an expert and get creative:

And The Best News? If She’s Involved With Girls On The Run:

  • she has higher self-esteem;
  • she has improved eating attitudes; **
  • she has an improved body image; **
  • and she has a positive peer group and positive role models for her future. **

**According to research conducted by Dr. Rita DeBate, Ph.D., MPH, CHES, assistant professor in the department of Health Behavior at UNC-Charlotte, the Girls on the Run Curricula improve girls self-esteem, body image and eating attitudes to a “statistically significant” extent.

How else are they (unofficially) measuring success? The had an essay contest (sponsored by Secret, all winnings went to the winner’s GOTR chapter) asking each girl to explain “How has Girls on the Run helped you to be more fearless?” Hannah, a 3rd grader from Chicago wrote:

“Through Girls on the Run I learned that I’ll never reach my goal unless I take a chance. I know if I try my best and put my heart into it, I can do anything. I never thought I could finish a 5K but I practiced and worked very hard until I reached my goal. Even though I wasn’t first, in my mind I was a winner, because I tried my best and had fun.“
(I imagine that there are a lot of adults who wished they had that perspective.)

social impact

Valuing Social Impact

In the Cheerios example, how highly you value health and longevity will directly correlate with the amount of time, money, and effort you invest in lowering your cholesterol (which in turn relates to what you expect your return on investment, or ROI, to be).

In terms of GOTR, what is the value of girls’ self-respect? What does that translate into in terms of quantitative impact? Do self-respecting women lead more productive and successful professional careers (income is quantifiable), have less health issues (health care costs are quantifiable),  provide better educational opportunities for their children (tuition is quantifiable)? Are there other proxies for the value of self-respect?

Social Impact Investing

Not only does measuring social impact give us great feedback in terms of performance and areas for improvement, but it also helps us evaluate ways to maximize social return on investment. In the end, as a sector,  we want to get as much social bang for our buck. What does that require? Constantly looking for ways to achieve our missions more efficiently and effectively and having a clear understanding of the measurable value of our social impact.


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