Turning Impact Intention into Impact Evidence: How to Put the GIIN’s IRIS+ Metrics into Action
Impact investors have long turned to the GIIN catalog of metrics (IRIS) to support their measurement needs. The IRIS (4.0) metrics were intended to provide “credible, comparable impact data” that could inform impact investment decisions and lead to greater impact results.
But as we know, accounting for impact is notoriously difficult. And even though the IRIS standards solved the challenge of providing some form of standardized metrics for impact investors, they are not comprehensive. Not everyone finds metrics in the IRIS catalog that are applicable to their work. What’s more, the IRIS metrics weren’t meant to solve all impact measurement issues – including questions like how to make impact strategy actionable. Perhaps for these reasons, IRIS metrics are still not widely used by impact investors. According to our own stakeholder survey, ~72% of respondents reported not using IRIS metrics in their strategy.
Now the GIIN has reintroduced its standards with IRIS+, aiming to take another step towards greater data transparency, improved comparability and ease of use. These metrics do a better job of aligning with the SDGs and bringing multiple standards together. And they’ve incorporated input from the Impact Management Project (IMP), a forum of more than 2,000 practitioners that aims to build a global consensus on how the sector talks about, measures and manages impact.
Yet IRIS+ alone is not enough. Practitioners still need practical tools to take advantage of it, complementing what IRIS+ provides so that their impact journeys can progress from theory to reality, no matter the size of the program or organization. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at what’s new with these updated metrics, and how impact investors, managers and practitioners alike can best turn the IRIS+ resources into actionable impact management.
What is IRIS+?
Briefly, IRIS+ aims to help impact investors go from impact intention to impact evidence. How? Let’s examine a few of its key elements.
A shared language is essential for impact investors, and the IRIS+ Thematic Taxonomy seeks to bring us closer to having that language. It provides standardized definitions for different impact categories and impact themes, enabling sector professionals to better collaborate in the assessment, communication and improvement of impact outcomes.
Core Metric Sets and Metrics Catalog
The GIIN lays this out in more detail, but to summarize, the IRIS+ metric sets are compact categories of key impact performance indicators. Each category includes one or more IRIS metrics (from the IRIS catalog) as well as guides for how to calculate and use the indicators, and insights that can be taken from them.
No matter your industry or disclosure requirements, it is likely that IRIS+ has got you covered. From Aeris to WHO, it aligns with more than 50 standards bodies across various social impact sectors, which makes for better ease of use and more effective use overall. SoPact is one of these official GIIN partners, along with the other organizations shown here. All the IRIS+ metrics, SDG indicator alignments and IMP alignments are built into the platform.
Both in the development of IRIS+ and in how they suggest it be used, the GIIN emphasizes a stakeholder-centric strategy. A detailed guide from IRIS+ on the importance of involving stakeholders (and how to use IRIS+ to do so) can be found here. One key takeaway is that the metrics sets can help investors pursue outcomes that are relevant to the stakeholders involved.
This last point brings us to some important questions, however: What tools might impact investors use to help implement a strategy supported by IRIS+? And how might they get the most out of IRIS+ and, for example, properly integrate a stakeholder’s approach?
At SoPact, we have some answers, based on our usage of IRIS+, our social sector knowledge, and our involvement in impact management technology development.
Listening to stakeholders with IRIS+ and Impact Cloud®
IRIS+ gives you the strategic guidance you need to start your impact measurement journey. But we know that strategy is worth nothing if it is not actionable, and it remains surprisingly rare for a social enterprise or an impact investor to listen to the voices of those affected by their activities.
To address this, SoPact’s cloud-based impact management solution aims to help practitioners at every level to not just structure their strategies (complementing the resources that IRIS+ provides), but also to put those strategies into action. Here’s how.
Actionable Solutions at the Outset of the impact Journey
Let’s start at the beginning. With IRIS+ you can select your impact category and further specify any relevant strategy. IRIS+ Impact Categories are aligned with the industry classes standardized by the U.N.’s International Standard Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities, and based on input received from the hundreds of stakeholders around the world involved in the development of IRIS+. But while the deep resource base that IRIS+ provides can take you further into impact strategy development, it cannot give you the online tools to map out that strategy (for example, planning out your theory of change). That’s where SoPact’s Impact Cloud platform comes in: See the example below of a water project mapping out their theory of change using Impact Cloud.
This cloud-based solution (with built-in IRIS+ metrics) provides a guide to creating a theory of change or Impact Management Project-based alignment. It can help practitioners and their teams reduce much of the impact planning headache.
Why is it important to have this strategy builder in the tool? For one thing, mapping out this first step makes the rest of the impact measurement and management journey seamless and meaningful. Also, if you do not find a suitable metric in the IRIS+ catalog, you can add your own custom metrics, or utilize many other standards such as GuideStar, Bond, CDP, WHO, GRI, etc., which are also built into the system.
Streamlining Metrics Selection
The IRIS metrics catalog is the bread and butter of the GIIN’s offering. But while they offer the ability to search for suitable metrics within the impact category, and provide background information on how to get the most out of each metric, there remains a need for a tool that houses those metrics, allowing you to manipulate them, input their relevant data, etc.
Enter the SoPact Impact Cloud once more: It includes a comprehensive database of 3700+ metrics available, which can be searched, filtered and generally used to define and manage the metrics you choose, making it easier to build a robust impact evidence and communication strategy from day one. With dashboards to present outcome results and an automatic impact scorecard feature (which can be aligned to the Impact Management Project and the SDGs), metrics that may have originally been simply perused and sourced from IRIS+ actually come alive in the Impact Cloud.
Transforming the Stakeholder Voice Using Artificial Intelligence (Natural Language Processing)
The GIIN has gone to great lengths to make sure that both the development and use of their resources takes into account a wide variety of stakeholders. On the impact intervention side, seen through the lens of impact measurement, this means we need to involve beneficiaries in the discussion and reporting of outcomes. In short, we need to ask them!
Such an approach is a tricky one because it inevitably involves open-ended stakeholder questions that can produce qualitative data. As we know, the telling of a story (i.e. how a beneficiary feels they have been impacted by an intervention) can only take us so far. We need ways to translate those qualitative insights into quantitative data. That’s why Impact Cloud quickly introspects all qualitative responses and produces keyword, sentiment and emotion analysis which can be linked with specific quantitative results, as seen in the Impact Scorecard below.
But it’s not enough to just hear these stakeholders’ perceptions: Their stories must also lead to impact insights (and eventually better outcomes). That’s why SoPact is incorporating artificial intelligence technology like natural language processing – which can assess stakeholder sentiment from interviews, surveys, etc. – into our Impact Cloud. This allows users to collect the thoughts or feelings of their stakeholders, in order to quantify this qualitative data.
Thanks to this functionality, these stories can produce results, merging stakeholder sentiment with impact data to form a robust impact management strategy.
Improving Impact Investing Outcomes on Five Dimensions of the Impact Management Project
After hundreds of in-person and virtual conversations with its global network of practitioners, the Impact Management Project reached a consensus that impact can be deconstructed into five dimensions: What, Who, How Much, Contribution and Risk. These five dimensions can provide practitioners, both new and old, with a powerful place to start – or to continue – their impact journeys.
The IRIS+ Core Metrics Sets are aligned with this framework, which may be used to assess the effects of any investment or enterprise across the five dimensions of impact. But to preserve the context of the IMP, it’s essential that the data collected be kept together as a “set” across all five of these dimensions. This is the key element of Impact Cloud, as metrics can be grouped by the set: By keeping this set intact, you can more easily align your portfolio with the five dimensions established by the Impact Management Project.
Having cross-sector accessibility (ie: standards alignment) and resources like thematic taxonomy guides, a metrics catalog and stakeholder-centric strategy builders can make the process less daunting for impact managers. SoPact’s Impact Cloud offers that end-to-end impact management solution, making the fine resources from IRIS+ actionable from start to finish.
Hetal Sheth is Co-Founder of SoPact.
Photo courtesy of Justin Knol.