Measuring Impact and Social Return on Investment

We are all trying to make an impact. We want the people we serve, the issues we tackle and the communities we build to be better because of our efforts. You know your program or initiative is having a positive impact based on what you’re seeing and hearing, but can you prove it? During a recent meeting of the CMA’s Not-for-Profit Council we turned our minds to this question.

How can we measure impact, outcomes and social ROI? This can be particularly challenging if you are a not-for-profit or public service organization, where ROI can’t always be measured in economic terms, and outcomes are often shared or difficult to measure. Accountability frameworks and organizational approaches are useful for evaluating outcomes and impacts. They articulate value in various ways and allow us to tell stories that would otherwise be impossible to share.

Here are three areas that are important to think about when embarking on a mission to demonstrate impact and articulate value:

Involve everyone, and involve them early

    “…the most important thing we can do on any given day in our organization as a leader is to remind people of what it is that we have set out to accomplish.”

Herman B. ‘Dutch’ Leonard, Professor, Harvard Business School

It’s key that everyone involved in whatever you are measuring – a new strategy or initiative, product or service – be involved in the development of the impact measurement plan. To be effective, this really can’t be something that sits solely with people tasked with evaluation at the finish line. From the program/initiative designers, to the facilitators and implementers, to the evaluators – everyone must understand the goals, be clear on what success looks like, and ensure the program is designed and delivered in such a way that success can be measured effectively.   

Beyond Outputs: Strategies and Frameworks to Measure Outcomes and Impacts

We’re very good at measuring outputs – attendance at events, eyeballs on ads, service usage, followers on social media, even changes in customer behaviour. But understanding how those activities and outputs translate into outcomes and impacts – i.e. the difference that we’ve made or the value that we’ve delivered – is much harder. We know how many kids attended the literacy program, but do we know how it affected their confidence or reading scores? Did a physical activity intervention or social interaction improve the quality of life or even life expectancy of a senior?

The use of standard tools such as logic models, which provide a consistent, step-by-step approach to outcome measurement and reporting, is very effective. This tool makes a clear distinction between activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts, and applies some rigor to the process. It can be very beneficial to the success of your program, but also to your organization’s brand and value proposition, to align your objectives and outcomes with broader partner or stakeholder strategies and outcomes. For example, aligning with your city’s poverty reduction or youth strategies, or your province’s digital strategy.

Iterate and Learn

It can be daunting to begin a process like this, and we tend to want everything to be perfect with our plan before we get started. Our advice – after you develop your framework, don’t be afraid to dive in and adjust along the way. Without putting your ideas into practice it’s next to impossible to know if they’re helping you hit the mark. Continue to implement and adjust until you reach the magic moment of a measurement process that really captures what you intended to achieve.  

For further reading:

Toronto Public Library Value Studies
So Much More: The Economic Impact of the Toronto Public Library on the City of Toronto
Technology Access in Public Libraries: Outcomes and Impacts for Ontario Communities

YMCA Report on Demonstrating Impact
The Value of Intentionality:  A Report on Demonstrating Impact in our YMCAs

Harvard Business School Article on Strategy Building
A Short Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building


By: Linda Hazzan, Toronto Public Library and Angela de Burger, YMCA Canada, both members of the Not-for-Profit Council of the Canadian Marketing Association.