Is measuring impact possible?

When you hear the word “impact”, what comes to mind? While your first thoughts may include that kickboxing class you just joined, it is it is also true that the term “impact” is often used loosely to encompass any type of reporting about the social or environmental mission of an organization. In the world of evaluation, this word has a much ‘tighter’ meaning:  Impact is the tracking of long-term outcomes, controlling for external influences, or using randomized control trials to prove that the outcomes are attributable to a particular organization’s efforts.

What does this mean in practice?  Consider the following example which may seem straight forward, but is more challenging when you get down to the details.

Hypothetical measurement need:   A business wants to measure the impact on greenhouse gas emissions of providing discounted solar roof panels.

A Simple Solution?  Greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to energy use, so if we can establish a reduction in energy use by customers for the life of the solar panel we can calculate greenhouse gas emissions savings:


Complexity of energy system » How would you establish the future electricity demand of the client and the degree to which the solar panels can meet this year to year?

» How would you establish the emission savings given that the fuel mix of electricity generation changes over time, and is outside the control of the client?  (If the generation is mainly from hydro dams, then there are no emission savings from installing the panels)

» How long will the panels last?  Will the client be able to repair them if they fail?

» If the client saves energy costs in the future, will they use this savings to buy more things that create emissions (like airline travel)?
Data needs » How will you find out how much electricity is saved? A survey? An estimate of future energy savings?

» Will the client be able to provide this?

» Are there established conventions about how data are measured?
Causation » Did the financing cause the action?

» Would the client have purchased the solar panel without the lower interest rate? Some clients would likely be committed to the purchase without the rate incentive.
Attribution / Influence » If the lower rate did influence the purchase, did anybody or anything else?  (E.g. a government information program? A sudden spike in electricity prices?)

» How much is attributable to the lower interest rate?

Many of these challenges can be addressed, for instance conventions are developing on how to report emissions, but this example illustrates that there often can be a high level of analytic and data complexity to really get at impact. Such complexity exists for impact measurement in different areas – for example, the impact of social housing investment on poverty reduction or the impact of strengthening sustainable food economy on food security.

So where does that leave you…

Really being able to assess impact takes time and resources, and it isn’t something that can be done off the side of a desk. In many organizations, considerable resources are devoted to assessing financial health – so why would this be done differently for social or environmental impact, which is often more complex?

Accessing Demonstrating Value solutions can also help you address these challenges outlined above and navigate the complexities of impact measurement: 

  • Tools & Resources – Demonstrating Value resources will offer you solutions for managing data that will enable you to better understand your organization’s performance, value, and impact in the long-term.
  • Expertise – Support is offered through instructional workshops and technical advisors who can help you apply Demonstrating Value solutions to your organization’s unique complexities and impact assessment priorities.
  • Community – Join the Demonstrating Value community and take part in the valuable dialogue on tailoring solutions for social enterprise performance measurement and evaluation. Demonstrating Value has been rooted in community since its inception and welcomes you to be a part of the conversation by contacting us, participating in webinars, and staying tuned to news and events on our webiste!
blog type: 
Issues & Ideas