Event report: impACT, for pioneers in social impact assessment






Social impact assessment: new insights – and some hard limits

How to measure sustainable social impact? Impact assessment visualises the change to which social entrepreneurs, civil society organisations and other societal actors contribute, beyond the material outcome of their activities. New insights and tools were on display during the two-day conference on 25 and 26 March in Brussels, Belgium, organised by Social Innovation Factory, Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship and BNP Paribas Fortis, attended by a host of international guests.

Solutions to beat poverty, give acces to healthcare or bring up ecological solutions are in high demand, as is the need for their impact valorisation. How to prove that employment also affects the educational growth of whole families ? That car sharing not only reduces CO² but also enables social cohesion? An impact measurement tool such as Impact Wizard, developed by Social Innovation Factory presented during the conference, guides organisations through the process of impact assessment with a wide and steady range of indicators.

impACT, for pioneers in social impact assessment


" What do you measure?' is the single big question for any social impact assessment." - Arnoud Raskin (StreetwiZe-Mobile School)

How does impact assessment works in real life? A strong case for digitalised and user friendly social impact measurement was presented by Arnoud Raskin, founder of Mobile School. 350 street educators provide innovative educational programs valorising the qualities of resourcefulness in underprivileged street children in 26 countries. Restoring self-esteem is a fundamental step towards succesful social and professional integration. Geographic and social diversity of the target group makes impact measurement a tough challenge. “What exactly do we measure?“, Arnoud Raskin rhetorically asked – a key question throughout the conference. While Mobile School educators tangibly empower children, the question whether they directly impact their self-esteem in the long run merely comes down to a ‘gut feeling’.

The newly developed StreetSmart tool for street educators enables a follow-up of the educational process of individual children. “In social work, you cannot measure through academical tools“, Raskin says. “We created this easy-to-use impact app and its content platform charting the educational process of every kid through a mood pad, efficacy indicators, goals and a social map that measures their level of ‘belonging’ – thus facilitating impact reporting. The inclusion of Artificial Intelligence, enhancing a smart environment for street educators, and an lively interface for the street kids will complete the StreetSmart tool.”

The ensuing expert panel discussion focussed on why - or why not - to invest in social impact measuring. Annica Johansson (Reach For Change) interestingly questioned the need for small social entrepreneurs with little resources to allocate time and resources to impact measurement. “To visualise impact organisations and communities mutually agree on, can take out valuable working time.” In an ideal scenario, organisations are structurally enabled to carry out impact measurement : “boards and funders should apply the same high expectations on results reporting as is the case in for-profit organisations. We need to put impact results at the top of the agenda at board meetings“.

Alessia Gianoncelli (European Venture Philantropy Association) reflected the funders perspective, focussing on impact measurement as a management tool. “It is not an academic exercise. There is a strong need for focus and specific indicators”, she added. Karen Boers (BeCode), who provides entrepreneurs with access to customers, investors and talent through various start-up platforms, pointed out that true impact assessment value depends on how precisely is defined what is being measured. Mrs Boers acknowledged the hard limits when it comes to how to take into account social impact into ‘obvious’ corporate KPI’s.

“Impact measurement is all about creating trust. It is the proof you want to go one step beyond. That in itself is an asset." - Laura Bergh (Poverty Stoplight Office SA)

A lot of impact that increases peoples wellbeing or self-esteem is intangible”. Mrs Boers pointed out the importance of innovative assessment tools and financial instruments that can prove social impact beyond the KPI’s. The need for integrated impact measurement tools was emphasized by Prof. Jan Jonker (Radboud University - “We need to assess various levels of impact without getting lost in them. Societal value creation should be the sole purpose of impact measurement”. Prof. Jonker also pointed out the potential flaws of a mere ‘need to measure’.

An outspoken voice from South Africa was Laura Bergh (Poverty Stoplight Office SA), who emphasised the non-linear process of transformation. Accurate impact measurement should be used to empower people in their own transformation, according to Mrs Bergh, who firmly opposed using social impact assessment data as a ‘sales’ tool for non-profit organizations. “Funders who start comparing social impact of organisations, will turn them into fierce competitors for funding. This will ultimately stop them co-operating and sharing data”. Mrs Bergh mentioned the dangers for social entrepreneurs of selling impact assessment data to the highest bidder. Subsequently, Eveline Durinck (IDEA Consult), emphasized that impact measurement is useful as an internal monitoring and learning tool, and is not meant to be imposed by an external party or used as a sales tool.

“By trying to think about their impact, organisations are moving towards more impactful work.” - Annica Johansson (Reach for Change)

In the afternoon, two workshops highlighted good practices of social profit organisations. Reach For Change is a social incubator operating in 15 countries and supporting 150+ social entrepreneurs working towards sustainable development goals. Head of Impact Annica Johansson discussed how Reach for Change helps social entrepreneurs in their capacity building process and measuring, evaluating and maximising their social impact, using in-house developed and existing measuring tools. Another good practice was presented by Laura Bergh, who runs Poverty Stoplight Office South Africa that assists social enterprises, non-profits and corporates to measure and understand their social impact.

“We need to measure impact for societal value creation only.” - prof. Jan Jonker (Radboud University)

A new generation of business models for impact can trigger societal disruption. Prof. Jan Jonker is an entrepreneurial expert who is passionate about creating and adapting business models with a positive societal impact. Jonkers’ central theme of work includes Sustainable Development Strategy in a ‘WeConomy’, taking social, ecological and economic value into account. Another field is new business models for value creation, hybrid banking a third working field. Prof. Jonker researches hybrid values as community currencies such as time, energy, mobility or waste. Community building is the ultimate impact of such new business models.

How can innovative financial instruments be levers for impact? During a fourth break-out session, the opportunities created by social impact bonds to validate social impact were presented. Karen Boers ((BeCode) explained how since 2017 500 talented underprivileged students were trained by BeCode as digital workers. As such, the social impact of BeCode can be easily quantified by the number of trainees who actually find a job, as compared to a selected peer group with a similar social profile. BeCode is partially funded through social impact bonds. In this pay-for-succes model, a public partner who ‘owns’ a problem (e.g unemployed youth) partners with a private impact investor who funds a social service provider that offers a solution to the problem. If the social goals defined by the public partner are met, the private investor is granted a ROI percentage on his investment. Ms Broers explained how social impact bonds by their very nature can serve as a solid impact assessment.

Text: Wieland De Hoon