Francisco Noguera

Net Impact: Impact Measurement and the Importance of Asking the Right Questions

Miguel JardineGuest blogger Miguel Jardine is a first-year MBA student at Thunderbird School of Global Management where he focuses on Green Capital Allocation.? At Thunderbird, he has further developed his ideas on Triple Bottom Line value propositions and the leadership role of business in igniting meaningful progress in solving the environmental and socioeconomic challenges of our times.?

Miguel was born in Panama and traveled through Asia led by his fascination with intercultural collaboration.By Miguel Jardine

I went to the 2008 Net Impact Conference in Philadelphia to try to answer the type of questions asked in the description of? one of the presentations titled “Measuring Impact:” “How do you define and measure the value of social impact?? How does this vary between public, private, and nonprofit organizations? What metrics forecast impact?”? Evidently I was not alone in my quest because I had to jockey for a good seat in the packed auditorium where Jason Saul, CEO of Mission Measurement, was moderating the panel discussion.

The presentation started by voicing the commonly held belief that the warm, selfless act of service seemingly defies the cold, calculated precision of measurement.? After all, how do you measure feelings of compassion and happiness?? The answer, however, has become more and more significant as the business world wrestles with the new demands of integrating social responsibility into their operations.?

As they do, nonprofit organizations, who have dominated the social service marketplace, are being pushed to face the inevitable incumbent challenge: to reinvent themselves in order to remain competitive.? It is entirely possible, the panel empathized, for nonprofits to remain true to their missions with only a slight change in perspective.

Here are three principles that guide Mission Measurement’s work.? First, fundraising should not be seen as a begging exercise, but as selling a solution for social impact.? Second, impact is easier to sell if metrics about measurable outcomes are used rather than nebulous statistics of volunteer hours served or number of soup bowls filled.? Third, nonprofits should not think of collecting metrics that prove their value, but rather collect metrics that improve their performance.? The gist of Saul’s points is that when an organization asks a question from the right angle, answers are more forthcoming.?

These observations were supported by the two other panel participants, Ann Stone of the Wallace Foundation and Debra Natenshon from the Center for What Works.? Stone recounted stories of how programs funded by the foundation have been able to derive more bang for their received dollars and increase mission wins when they asked tough questions of themselves like “How do we know that we should keep doing what we’re doing?”? This challenging act can be cut down in size with help from Natenshon’s center, a nonprofit itself that collects and tabulates data and offers comparative statistics from similar missions to determine relative effectiveness.? The panel agreed that often by asking one question, ancillary questions surface whose answers lead to the ultimate answer and create a-ha moments that can result in extra lives being rescued.

My take-away from the panel is that there is value is asking the right questions and honestly trying to answer them.? When an organization asks tough questions to and about itself, it can more easily respond to outside inquisitors.? Although answers may not be immediately evident, they become more visible as you purposefully look for them.?

I found inspiration in a parting quote from Saul, who was recounting Napoleon’s response to his troops about the strategy for fighting a particular battle, “Engage and the possibilities will emerge.