The 5 W’s of Measuring Impact: Adopting Common Measures

Photos by Centre for Social Innovation (CSI)

By Annabelle Liao

Every day, countless hours are poured into designing innovative solutions, mobilizing communities, and engaging in climate action. But how do we know the true impact of our efforts? How can we measure the value? And is there really a need to, as long as we know we’re doing good work? Today, I sat down with Randy Terada, Senior Manager of Adopting Common Measures, and Paluck Kohli, Client Engagement and Impact Coordinator, to dive deep into the intentions and goals of measuring impact- what it is, why it helps, and how it can be used to weave a rich social innovation network in Canada and beyond. 

What (Are We Measuring)?

Randy and Paluck manage the Adopting Common Measures (ACM) program, a project funded by the Government of Canada that empowers social purpose organizations to efficiently track, measure, and report progress towards impact goals. One of ACM’s most remarkable features is the Impact Dashboard, a platform developed and hosted by our partners at the Centre for Social Innovation. I asked Paluck to describe it: “We want to support mission-driven organizations all across Canada to align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and help them measure the impact that they’re making. The Impact Dashboard is for organizations to select the SDGs they want to work on, build out a logic model, and visualize their impact metrics to create an impact report that can be shared with others.” 

ACM uses the Impact Dashboard to help Social Purpose Organizations (SPOs) identify the SDGs their work is aligned with and then helps guide them to input the all-important metrics that will gauge and measure their impact. The Impact Dashboard enables SPOs to think about impact from their own unique standpoint and not simply from the investors’ point of view. As the Impact Dashboard is the first exposure to impact measurement for many SPOs it is important that the dashboard is aligned with the Common Approach 5 essential practices. Most importantly it serves as a launchpad for translating both the qualitative and quantitative data into a fulsome story of impact.

When, Where and For Who?

Paluck describes her excitement to “be part of a project that is devoted to systemic change where power is given to communities and social purpose organizations.” But how does measuring impact lead to this sense of empowerment? And who does this data benefit? Starting from the good work being done, impact tracking can help build capacity, and teams can better identify their metrics of success and appetite for projects. “But impact measurement doesn’t just help the organizations internally,” Randy highlights, “Impact investors also want to know what impact is being made from their funding so they can build connections and make data-driven decisions as a result.”  

He raises Purppl as an example of this: “Purppl is an organization that has a funding arm and a consulting arm. When they first came into our Community of Practice, they were more like consultants trying to help out social purpose organizations. But as Purppl gained more knowledge and experience in impact tracking, they discovered that they actually had more traction in the funding arm.” Following this realization, Purppl focused more of their efforts on growing this side of their work, which led to a new partnership being forged with the Government of Canada’s Investment Readiness Program. “This is an inspiring story to me because it shows that impact measuring helps organizations both internally and externally, and networks were expanded because our impact measurement advocacy works.”

Why (Do We Measure)? 

When it comes to measuring impact, there are many criticisms, especially in the context of smaller nonprofits. Some people say that measuring impact wastes time, energy, and money. Others say that it downplays the work of smaller organizations who do not have the means of measuring impact and creating in-depth reports, yet are the ones who need funding the most. And some also say that you simply do not need to measure impact so thoroughly to know that a program is helping a community. “In the not-for-profit sector, many of these criticisms are definitely valid, and some of these organizations don’t see the immediate value of the Impact Dashboard,” Randy says.

So what is the response to impact measurement doubters? “We understand where they’re coming from, but because of these current crises we’re facing, the nonprofit sector also needs to change somewhat, and we’re trying to help them through a focus on the impact they’re making. Because in order to make a large-scale impact, you can’t do it alone. You have to collaborate with others.” And if data is shared, if a culture of impact is created where the wider community can be considered alongside deliverables, then there can be more synergistic energy in Canada’s social innovation landscape. 

The Farmers’ Truck is a great example of this. Created in 2015 to serve food deserts in Greater Moncton, The Farmers’ Truck empowers other food banks to deliver fresh, nutritious produce. ACM approached them with a proposal to integrate impact measurement into their work. Paluck emphasizes, “It may not entirely change what The Farmers’ Truck does, but The Farmers’ Truck can now also better identify and communicate their unique impact and indicators, and communicate this with a well-known framework that opens up more funding and collaboration opportunities.” In the case of the Farmers’ Truck and other social purpose organizations, knowing that you have the impact you intend and making sure that you can mitigate any potential unintended consequences is crucial. And in a space that is so funder-driven, adopting a framework that helps generate easily digestible key performance indicators (KPIs) unifies different like-minded organizations and demonstrates how money is being effectively used to bolster community development. 

Adaptive to Change

Both Randy and Paluck emphasize the need to make sure they are centering equitable metrics of success moving forward. When discussing how equity and inclusion is demonstrated in impact measuring, Randy mentioned the developing stages of their program: “During our very first Community of Practice, a nation-wide discussion on how to effectively track impact and progress, someone asked why they should use our impact measuring framework when an Indigenous impact measurement framework already exists, and whether we included Indigenous ways of knowing in our work.” This was a wake-up call for the team, and prompted what Paluck describes as a continuous learning journey: “We also started asking ourselves how we could be more accessible to remote places in Canada, how could we be more relevant to more organizations, how could we make that extra effort to make sure no one is left behind in our networks?” 

Recently, Adopting Common Measures celebrated reaching 150 unique users on the Dashboard, and Paluck touches on one other unexpected achievement: “When the Impact Dashboard was first developed it was for small entrepreneurs, but we realized that it is scalable and has uses beyond what we imagined because it is incorporating the global United Nations SDG framework.” So, looking ahead, what does ACM want people to know about impact measurement’s potential in social innovation? Randy responds, “We’re hoping that if we start the conversation on impact measurement and tracking, it will lead to more social innovation ideas and systems change, because social innovation isn’t anything without systems change.” 

Annabelle Liao is a Propel Impact Fellow joining SI Canada for summer 2023. Annabelle is currently completing studies at the University of British Columbia in Global Resource Systems with a Sustainability Communications Specialization.