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5 Things Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs Should Know About Measuring Impact

At the upcoming Solve Challenge Finals on September 23, the Solve community will hear dozens of pitches from smart, driven, compassionate entrepreneurs. There’s no doubt we’ll be immersed in revolutionary ideas—ideas that will move the needle on many complex problems. However, the most promising solutions need more than a great idea; they must include a plan for measuring their impact. After all, how else will you know if your initiative truly makes a difference?

“Metrics and evaluation,” commonly abbreviated M&E, is a fancy way of developing procedures to measure impact. Despite their importance, metrics often come as an afterthought to an amazing idea. Some even view metrics as the necessary evil of the impact space. 

But no matter how much effort it takes, measuring effectiveness is a process all organizations should care about. However, when there are seemingly endless hours of work to do, often I’m asked, why should M&E be a priority?

We need metrics for many reasons. For one, they help tell a story about an initiative’s impact. But, perhaps most importantly, their significance lies in the reality that we deserve to know what matters, and why it matters—all in an objective way. Great ideas are the heart of change in this world, but metrics are the gut-check that keep change honest.

As the Challenge finalists prepare their pitches, here are five crucial best practices for building an effective M&E program.

1. Consider the right combination of metrics.

Metrics are half art and half science. Designing them requires a combination of information: inputs (what you measure), outputs (what that measurement tells you), and a profound understanding of your impact. Consider what combination of metrics tells the best story and answers the most important questions about your work

You also need to include short-term, tangible objectives that relate to larger goal statements. For example, if your goal is to reduce the number of maternal deaths, a tangible objective might be ensuring that more mothers give birth in hospitals or receive consistent prenatal care.

2. Use both qualitative and quantitative data.

M&E is an important tool when developing the story of impact for a solution or an organization. Your story must speak to your theory of change: your hypothesis about how your intervention will address the problem. The best impact stories do an impeccable job of using both quantitative and qualitative data.

To do this successfully, use qualitative or anecdotal data as a hook—it’s what grabs your audience and gets them attached to the mission. The quantitative data, however, is what retains and maintains your audience and demonstrates your organization’s scale of impact.

3. Keep metrics SMART.

When connecting your intervention to tangible outcomes, it’s important to set goals. Two experts on goalsetting, Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham, identified five elements that must be in place for us to achieve our goals, whether they be personal or organizational. These elements are often described as SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  • Specific: Goals should provide a clear description of what needs to be achieved.
  • Measurable: Goals should include a target that indicates success.
  • Achievable: When deciding on a target, make sure this target is challenging but achievable.
  • Relevant: Goals should stay consistent with higher level goals, such as your organization’s mission.
  • Time-bound: Always set a deadline for achieving your goal.

These goals should evolve based on the information you receive about your intervention, which leads to our next best practice.

4. Start early and evolve.

Many interventions wait to have a gold standard of metrics before beginning to measure any outcome. This is a common mistake, because a data story should constantly evolve. The shelf life of data, both qualitative and quantitative, should be short. Don’t start with the indicators in isolation. Instead start with what speaks to your decisions—if data won’t evolve your intervention, don’t use it.

When should you start measuring? Begin the moment an idea becomes an intervention. Metrics are tools, not outcomes. The data you gather is descriptive, not a deliverable. As impact shifts, metrics should shift too. Much of this process requires working backwards and learning from measurement mistakes. There are no one-size-fits-all metrics—if your intervention is truly novel, some of your metrics should be as well.

5. Keep things in perspective.

Finally, it’s important to realize that social impact is in the eye of the beholder: it’s hard to quantify. There is a bias for quick results and over-defining metrics, but this can lead to burn out and losing sight of your overall mission. Constantly tweaking M&E parameters is key to the success of your intervention, ensuring you don’t fall into “quick-fix” models. 

At the end of the day, metrics and evaluation may seem intimidating. However, when you approach it as a way to learn and improve and not as a test that you pass or fail, you can use it to reach your organization’s full potential.


Solve Challenge Finals Women and Technology Pitch Session on September 17, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Stuart / MIT Solve)

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