Where Quantifiable Impact Fails Social Change

The former CEO of a top Fortune 500 company recently told me that when he invests in social impact, he wants to see a 3-4% return on social investments, compared with 7-8% on other strictly financial investments. When I shared this with an environmentalist friend, he informed me that the average rate of forest growth has historically been less than 3%.[1]

The investor and the environmentalist put a challenge into focus: there’s a significant disconnect between the expectations of investors in social change and the ability of changemakers to quantify their impact, or turn an adequate profit. Simply put, there’s a problem when investor expectations are beyond the rate of growth in the natural world.

As a human rights entrepreneur and filmmaker, I’ve seen philanthropy and impact investing play an increasing and critical role in the broader ecosystem of social change, particularly as millennials come of age (and financial capacity). Many are excited by the prospect of doing good and making money, and impact investing offers that promise.

Businesses have enabled more sustainable—and less dependent—forms of social justice globally, and corporate social impact programs have created new models for financing social impact affecting hundreds of millions of people. Levi’s Strauss & Co, for example, has long been a leader on issues of gender equality, HIV/AIDS advancements, and sustainability. The desire for quantifiable impact measurement is an important development in advancing justice and has vastly grown the financial support for social justice. Numbers aren’t all bad, but they often don’t tell the whole story.

Social justice is often in conflict with profitable enterprise. It’s the kind of work that is hardest to measure, and not profitable in the traditional sense. I fear that employing a strict business-minded approach to shape a field where numeric data is often not an accurate reflection of impact, will lead to important areas of public interest going unfunded. So, how do we shape expectations for social change and return on investment in more appropriate ways? Can traditional philanthropy, and those supporting social justice, focus less on numbers and develop creative new ways to evaluate impact? We can—with the right engagement.

While working with the New Media Advocacy Project (N-Map), we used video and other media to innovate in the field of human rights. Our work was extremely hard to quantify. It turns out that the number of hits and ‘click-throughs’ is not always reflective of actual impact in strategic advocacy efforts.

What mattered was getting the right engagement. Having one person see a video that influences them to do something important can have massive impact, while videos with millions of views—that don’t reach the right audiences or have clear calls to action—often have no impact, despite the impressive engagement numbers.

But most people still quantify impact by number of hits and “viral videos,” without understanding the purpose they want this media to serve. The question is, how to measure impact in these cases?

Like most non-profits, N-Map spent a lot of time and resources developing ways to quantify impact, even when it didn’t make sense, because funders demanded it. But, how do you really quantify a change in popular perceptions of women and their role in society; or the impact that telling ones own story has on their self-esteem and psychological recovery from trauma; or increased momentum toward a final social justice goal that may not be attainable for years? Much of the work in social justice ROI isn’t measurable like mosquito nets or vaccines.

Social justice investment takes patience and courage. Funders new to the arena may not factor this in or understand the long-term value of such investments.  It's that patience and courage, however, that is critical if truly big change is to happen. It is part of the ecosystem and needs to be recognized and supported.

Case in point: Open Society Foundation’s (OSF) historic investment in the democratic transition in Burma. Having led global campaigns calling for Burma’s dictator to be held accountable for crimes against humanity, I remember when many said OSF’s goals were impossible and they struggled to get any funders to listen.

Funding a democratic transition in Burma was a highly risky bet. Financially speaking, it was a net loss and risky investment. As Maureen Aung-Thwin, Director of the Burma Program at OSF recently recalled, “There is no way [human rights organizations] could have known or promised that the efforts to push for criminal accountability could have had that impact.”

With the help and input of local and international non-profits, justice experts, social justice warriors, and most significantly, the population most closely affected by the dictatorship, OSF was convinced that the possibility, however slight, was worth investing in—in part for Burma, and in part to invest in the long-term system of global justice.

They also came to understand the critical point that the rule of law is a necessary backbone to any financial success, something many focused only on quantifiable ROIs overlook. The rule of law, or justice—however unquantifiable—enables profit. The risk paid off. Just three years later, the dictator stepped down, fearing the threat of criminal prosecution at the International Criminal Court. The result: a more democratic society, one that is thriving and growing connection with the world outside. It is an investment opportunity no doubt. But it continues to face human rights challenges that, if they remain unresolved, could threaten this progress.

What lessons can we glean from this example?

  1. Social justice efforts should be an exchange between donor recipients and funders. The role of grantees, nonprofits, experts, and their clients is to teach funders about where numbers fail to reflect impact and why. Funders and practitioners must work in collaboration to develop more appropriate forms of measurement for less quantifiable social impact work.
  2. As part of the social justice ecosystem, we need to take risks even when there is no ROI. These are investments in the broader social justice landscape that are essential, despite the difficulty of showing impact.
  3. We all need to think more broadly about profit, and about the role of hard to quantify ROI, such as work to advance rule of law and stability as profit-enabling.
  4. More appropriate forms of measuring impact in social justice work will enable time and energy to be freed up for nonprofits and organizers to actually do the work, rather than justify it.

Abby Goldberg is an Impact & New Media Strategist at the Impact Collaborative Collaborative, a multidisciplinary social innovation firm. She has spent close to two decades building successful human rights organizations, including the Global Justice Center, Digital Democracy, and New Media Advocacy Project. She currently consults with a variety of corporate and nonprofit clients, such as Nike and UN Women; and is producing a series on Cuba and the U.S. Abby is a key member of the Impact Collaborative team in the areas of human rights, media, tech and nonprofit leadership.

[1] “The annual rate of growth (in U.S. Forests) averaged about 2.8 percent per year since 1996” “Timber Growth, Mortality and Change”

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