A Fistful of Challenges: Why Measurement is so Difficult for Social Entrepreneurs

A Fistful of Challenges: Why Measurement is so Difficult for Social Entrepreneurs

With all the benefits of measurement, (better management of social programs, better understanding of a business’s impact, and the ability to communicate the value of your work to a larger audience) why wouldn’t a social enterprise want to measure?

It seems there is no shortage of reports, studies, and editorials urging practitioners to measure their social impact. In my capacity as a researcher of Taiwan’s social innovation sector, I too believe that measuring a social-facing business’s social impact is key to its overall development and growth. But often times when reading advocacy pieces for measurement, I am left puzzled by a seeming lack of empathy towards practitioners who do not measure. Whether it is the researcher or advocate’s intention, much of the literature about impact measurement can come off as condescending and pompous, having a devastating effect on an advocate’s cause. Instead of a continual push for practitioners to measure, we should try to better understand their motives for not measuring.

In this article, I take a practitioner’s perspective on measurement, and look at the logistical challenges of measuring and not measuring social impact. It is important for researchers to be patient of the process and let the development of a sector-wide system of measuring outputs grow organically.

Although many practitioners are eager to learn more about the process, or already have some kind of basic inter-organizational process already in place, there is still reluctance for many practitioners to hop into the measurement game for various reasons.

Why practitioners might not want to measure.

So what are the factors that would turn away a good-hearted entrepreneur from the social impact measurement “love-in”?

  1. Impact measurement can often be expensive, time- consuming, and a labour intensive activity.
    Practitioners are often already putting sixty-plus hours into their venture; investing further time into an activity that takes ones focus away from daily operations would be inconceivable to those already struggling to get everything done.
  2. Tools and software available to measure impact are sometimes not easily accessible to practitioners, or are not widely advertised.
    Additionally, much of the conversation about impact measurement is still within the sphere of the English-speaking world. Magazines and websites that publish extensively on issues pertaining to the social innovation economy, including the Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) are useful information banks for researchers and practitioners, but are not widely used in Taiwan and East Asia.
  3. It can be difficult for practitioners to see the material benefit of measurement.
    Especially if an ecosystem is still in its’ beginning stages developing social financing and investor options, or further capital opportunities for scaling are simply not available, it can be difficult for practitioners to see the material benefit of measurement. When measurement is incentivized, there is a far more likely chance entrepreneurs will actively seek to bridge the gap in current social metrics.
  4. Measuring social impact, and releasing the results to a private or public institution is a potentially frightening proposition for social enterprises doing their work in countries where public trust in government institutions is low.
    Although many countries in the West are moving towards an era of “big data” where we voluntarily give up personal information, this doesn’t necessarily extend to areas where the people and the government have at one time in history experienced a rocky relationship. For countries with still-developing social enterprise sectors, relaying sensitive information about a business’s social impact on an underprivileged group or community may be difficult for practitioners to accept.
  5. Practitioners may find that metrics and indicators commonly used to measure social impact do not gel with the stated mission statement of the social-facing business.
    Additionally, practitioners face the prospect that the indicators a potential investor wants to measure are cross-purposed or opposite to their own measurement goals. For example, if a practitioner wants to know to what degree an underprivileged community has improved their “quality of life”, but a government bureau wants to know how much tax dollars a social business can save instead of investing in public spending, then there is a clash of purpose in measurement, discouraging practitioners from even going through the effort.
  6. Quantitative data is excessive and/or unnecessary given their organization’s size or reach.
    are we need to consider the size of the social enterprise, and its stated social mission to help a specific group. For social enterprises that are serving a small number of stakeholders, and are trying to resolve the problem of a single community, qualitative evidence that their business is doing “good” is often enough. Bringing quantitative data into the equation may not be necessary for them.

The solution?

To alleviate many of these worries, researchers should take a soft-handed, non-judgmental approach to advocating measurement. It is important that logistical issues that hinder progress in measuring social impact are not ignored, and there are frequent efforts to encourage collaboration between practitioners and researchers. For example, researchers can help incentivize measurement by finding seed money or investors for social-facing businesses that successfully complete the social impact measurement process.

It is also important for researchers and advocates of social impact measurement to take a soft-handed approach to its promotion. Being empathetic towards the everyday challenges entrepreneurs face when running a social-facing business is key to building trust between disparate groups in the public, private, and academic sectors. If we don’t take the effort to walk in their shoes, researchers may become an obstacle to the progression of social enterprise in emerging social innovation sectors.

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Editor’s Note: This piece is featured on SocialFinance.ca thanks to our ongoing content partnership with SURGE Taiwan. Visit their site to check out more of their work or read their quarterly newsletters here!

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