Businesses aiming for profit need only count their money to understand whether they’re on the right track. But social impact organizations don’t always have as straightforward a way to measure their success. At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, four leaders in the sector shared their strategies for measuring results.
Barbara Bush, founder and CEO of Global Health Corps–a not-for-profit that connects leaders with global health organizations–says that her program measures impact based on the work fellows do during their fellowships as well as in their careers after they leave.
One fellow, for instance, left a job working on The Gap’s supply chain to work with Global Health Corps on improving the supply of drugs in Tanzania. After that, he moved to Sierra Leone to help build the supply chain for Ebola care. “We’re curious if now, because of Global Health Corps, he will have a bigger impact in the field of global health,” Bush said. “I would argue he has, because he was working for the Gap before and not really having any impact on the field of global health.”
Meighan Stone, president of the Malala Fund, said because the organization works to secure girls’ right to an education, the question it uses to evaluate itself is the same as any parent uses to assess their own children’s education: “What are you learning?”
Another part of the work, however, is to fund front-line organizations that are struggling to change how their governments handle education for girls. “That’s a longer fight,” she said. “It’s not something that is going to be realized in an annual report cycle. It’s going to take longer.”
Casey Gerald, the co-founder and CEO of MBAs Across America, said that impact isn’t necessarily the most important discussion. “I think it’s far more interesting to look at how we talk about failure and whether we think about failure,” he said.
Gerald’s program pairs MBA students with local entrepreneurs who are building businesses with positive social impact. He used the example of an entrepreneur who was building a market in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans–a “food desert” where locals have to travel miles–often on public transportation–to get to the nearest grocery store. “The business was better when we left than when we got there, ” Gerald said, “but the fact that we have places in this country where an entrepreneur has to start a food market to feed the community makes it harder for me to call it a success. There’s a systemic failure happening, even if the market is programmatic success.”
Leila Janah, founder of Sama Group, which connects low-income people to work through the Internet, said that she thinks a movement called “effective altruism” has had a positive effect on international development work. The idea is to measure the impact of social programs with the same rigor as one might manage his financial portfolio in order to determine the most effective destination for charitable dollars.
Though the idea may look at impact too narrowly, Janah said, it is better than what the sector had done previously, which was to “basically use poor people as guinea pigs for our well-meaning ideas about what might make them better off, but with very little data or rigor around how we’re applying those interventions and very little outcomes measurement. “
“The work we do moving people out of poverty has one very straightforward measurement,” she says, “which is, are people less poor after our program?”