Measuring Social Impact (wait…what is social impact?)

Nov 11, 2009 by

Note: This post is part of a collaborative effort from the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance. Check out my kick off post about the Alliance here.

Now that I sit down to think about it, I have to admit that I don’t know what social impact is or what that term is supposed to mean.

As nonprofits, we’re supposed to have a social impact and are supposed to be able to measure and/or demonstrate that impact regularly. I’ve worked in nonprofits for 7+ years. How come I don’t know what it means?

Well, ok I guess I do have some ideas. I got into nonprofit work in order to make people’s lives better and therefore to make the world better (have I mentioned how idealistic I was?). So for me, making a social impact means making people’s lives demonstrably better: providing access to a good education at a reasonable cost (free is even better), providing space and safety for children to play, feeding hungry people and then helping them learn job skills so that they can feed themselves, offering free or low cost health care so that people can feel better and the list goes on and on.

Here’s the problem though: I’ve never done any of those things and I’ve never worked at an organization that did. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, when I first chose to work at a national organization that did not provide direct services, I immediately took myself out of the concrete realm of helping people. The organizations I’ve worked for have done lobbying (yes, it is legal for nonprofits to lobby), promoted ballot measures, brought legal cases, analyzed bills and laws and mobilized people to advocate for/support the good bills, ballot measures, etc. But not one of them fed a hungry person or housed a homeless person or provided health care or childcare to someone in need.

Does that mean I or these organizations haven’t had an impact? I’ve struggled with that question on and off throughout my career.  After examining all sides as objectively as I can, I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, I have made an impact and that the organizations I’ve worked for have as well.

Why? For my part I think I’ve demonstrated impact in a couple of ways:

1)   Helping others do their jobs better – most of my jobs have involved working in an association-like atmosphere (or in an actual association): a number of state and local organizations that are either chapters or affiliates of a national organization that works both on their behalf as organizations and on the behalf of their clients/constituents. Right now, that means I work with state-based smart growth organizations that work to save green spaces, connect land uses with transportation needs, advocate for more public transportation and more. Most of them do this work by lobbying at the state and local government level for better laws and policies. I am helping them do their jobs better by providing information and expertise on how best to approach certain advocacy efforts, how to structure events so they reach their maximum potential for influence, how to reach out to influential people as well as everyday citizens and more. If I can provide them with info and support that allows them to do more of that work, faster and more efficiently, they will be able to change and strengthen more policies, pass more laws and therefore help more people. My proof of this impact is pretty simple: co-released reports using template information I’ve provided, reports of success on a particular bill or policy and my favorite, thank you notes from members.

2)   Getting people involved in a concrete way – When I was a campus organizer at the Feminist Majority Foundation most of my job involved traveling to colleges around the country and speaking with students about feminism, women’s rights, and reproductive rights. To this day I still think that the most gratifying moments of my job were when I saw the lights go on in student’s eyes as they realized what feminism meant and how they could get involved. And get involved they did: they started or joined feminist student groups, they got policies changed on campus and in their local communities, they made calls and sent letters to their local, state and federal representatives about important bills and policies and much more. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time reaching out to people to ask them to take action on specific issues. I’ve made hundreds if not thousands of phone calls, sent many thousands of emails and made several trips all over the country to engage people on various issues. Many of those people did make calls to their Senators or write a letter to their Congressperson. Many then went out and engaged their own friends and family in the effort as well. Some the campaigns were successful and some were not, but the real impact came from helping people to understand the issue, why it was important and how they were a key part in making or stopping something from happening.

As I’m wrapping up this post I’m thinking again about social change. As an American, it seems to me that social change is extremely hard and often painful, but it is part of our heritage and our social fabric as a nation. As de Tocqueville noted, Americans associate and create organizations (nonprofits) for more than selfish reasons. If these nonprofits are the harbingers of democracy to the citizens of this country, I think that by helping people exercise their democratic rights, the nonprofits I’ve worked for have made a real impact.

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