With its singular history of rugged collective-individualism, Calgary played host to the Social Enterprise World Forum as over a thousand people descended to share, connect and advance social enterprise world-wide during the first week of October. With good cheer and a rodeo welcome, organizers in Calgary did an awesome job of creating the space and program to celebrate our success and critically examine how we can take social enterprise to the next level. I was privileged to be an invited speaker on the topic of measuring social impact. Here are some of my reflections from the session.
Given that the session took place during the last non-plenary timeslot on the last day, I was pretty impressed to see a packed room for the session. This topic came up in many of the preceding sessions and I think it is a significant question for those working in social enterprise. The session was fairly dense with content with four speakers.
Jonathan Coburn (Founding Director and Principal Consultant, Social Value Lab, UK) opened the session with a broad introduction to social impact measurement, some observations from an international perspective on trends, and his reflections on how to measure impact based on his experience working with social enterprises.
This was followed by Penelope Rowe (Chief Executive Officer, Community Sector Council of Newfoundland and Labrador) who shared her Council’s experience with a Social Return on Investment Pilot Project with a spectrum of community organizations. The project, which took longer and was more intensive than anticipated, sounded like it was initially challenging and difficult for participants, but did yield some useful results for these organizations.
My own presentation focused on how to build in impact measurement into business processes and systems that social enterprises are developing anyway (see recent blog), with examples from three different types of social enterprises – supportive employment (The Cleaning Solution), arts-based (DreamRider Productions) and local food (Comox Valley Farmers’ Market). You can see my presentation deck here (I’ve added in a few of my talking points in blue, since I tend to be fairly minimalist with the text).
The final presentation of the session was by Stephanie Robertson (President, SiMPACT Strategy Group) which mostly focused on her work applying the Social Return on Investment methodology. Two points stood out for me in her section. The first was that we need to clearly distinguish valuation from evaluation. It is something I’ve also felt is very important to do, and that impact measurement is a progression that may or may not include monetizing impact (see past DV blog on this). She also emphasized that we need more resources for doing this type of work. I firmly agree! Everybody seems to want impact measurement and evaluation, but there are few resources to do this work well.
The session was just beginning….
Sadly the session came to a close with little time for discussion and questions, and the conference as a whole dissipated as conferences do. By the end of the session, I had so much in my mind that I wanted to share with my fellow speakers and other interested attendees, but couldn’t. So I will here!
Top of my mind is to discuss how we can undertake community impact research that can benefit multiple organizations and reduce the burden on individual organisations to measure their impact. I am getting more convinced that we’ve got to stop thinking that we can measure impact off the side of our desks and instead put good resources and expertise into top-notch research, in a way that the results can also benefits individual organizations. The Toronto Enterprise Fund’s longitudinal evaluation of social enterprise employee outcomes is a good example of this. At the same time social enterprises need to easy-to-use systems to track core metrics that are fundamental to building their blended value business and understanding their multiple bottom lines.
Most social enterprise are fairly small scale and have remarkable people multitasking beyond belief and creating value from very little. As a sector, we have a responsibility not to burden the development of social enterprise by creating a demand for analysis that will raise the bar beyond what most can handle and which may not be a priority in developing successful businesses.