On an instinctual level, you know your nonprofit is doing important, impactful community work. Your volunteers show up early. Your staff stays late. However, generally speaking, you can’t receive grants or funding on instinct alone—and our instincts are often wrong and can lead to poor decisions. Luckily, there’s a solution: social impact assessment.
Social impact assessment is particularly well-suited to help non-profit organizations show what they do, how well they do it, and their long-term community impact. In fact, it’s used by stakeholders across the social good sector, including:
Collaboratives and collective impact initiatives
In this guide, we’ll explore the different facets of social impact assessment and its role and implementation across the social good sector.
Because social impact assessment can at first seem overwhelming, we’ll start with the basics, answering the most frequently asked social impact assessment-related questions. However, if you already have a solid foundation, you can use this table of contents to jump ahead to sections of interest:
Remember: Social impact assessment isn’t one-size-fits-all. What works for one organization can be terribly unhelpful for another. Instead, social impact assessment is most effective when adapted to fit your organization’s specific circumstances and goals.
By the end of this guide, you should be able to identify the right approach to social impact assessment for your organization and the steps to implement it. Let’s get started!
Defining Social Impact Assessment: FAQ
As the varied responses from members of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) show, there isn’t just one definition of social impact assessment. Nevertheless, most definitions of social impact assessment share certain common features.
In order to discuss contemporary frameworks, steps, and strategies for social impact assessment, it’s essential to establish a common language for talking about it. Let’s begin by defining our term of the hour: social impact assessment.
What Is Social Impact Assessment?
Social impact assessment is a wide-ranging evaluation of the social consequences (both positive and negative, intended and unintended) of policies, plans, programs, and projects on the lives of individuals, families, and communities. As a result, it includes the process of research, planning, assessment, management, monitoring, and reporting at all stages of a project’s life cycle.
At its heart, social impact assessment is the study of people-related impacts—the impacts of and the impacts on human beings—in order to drive positive, sustainable, and equitable change in the world.
What Is the History of Social Impact Assessment?
On January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in the U.S. As a crucial part of the law, NEPA required that planned federal actions expected to significantly impact the human environment be evaluated in a publicly available assessment.
While social impact assessment existed before NEPA, this policy instilled it in the broader public and legal consciousness. Since then, social impact assessment has expanded beyond the federal level and is now used across all tiers of the social good sector.
Why Is Social Impact Assessment Important?
Social impact assessment is important not only because of its direct legal standing, but also because its comprehensive approach can help nearly any social good organization deliver its mission-critical services, engage its communities, attract new sources of funding, and increase trust among stakeholders.
By demonstrating the degree to which you are changing the world, you can better engage both constituents and funders. Moreover, lacking a complete picture of the impacts of a new project could unintentionally cause community harm. Thus, you can use social impact assessment to identify potential impacts in advance and during activities to make better decisions about your interventions and mitigation measures.
Categories of Social Impact Assessment
One of the benefits of social impact assessment is its broad applicability as a framework that looks at how people and communities interact with their socio-cultural, economic, and biophysical surroundings.
Depending on the target population, social impact assessment may look at a number of social impacts, including:
Aesthetic impacts (e.g., physical landscape)
Archaeological and cultural heritage impacts
Health and mental health impacts
Economic and fiscal impacts (e.g., housing, poverty)
Environmental impacts (e.g., air and water quality, sanitation)
Psychological impacts (e.g., fears and aspirations)
Leisure and tourism impacts
Natural resource and land use impacts (e.g., ownership and access)
Community service impacts (e.g., police, fire, sanitation, health)
Cultural impacts (e.g., shared beliefs, customs, values, language)
Political impacts (e.g., distribution of power, democratization)
Demographic impacts (e.g., population numbers, diversity)
Additionally, social impact assessment will likely evaluate these factors in different social containers, including those at the individual, familial, communal, and institutional levels.
Of course, these impact categories are intertwined with one another. It’s nearly impossible to evaluate just one element without considering its relationship to the others. Thus, in most cases, a comprehensive social impact assessment simply can’t be achieved by one organization alone. Instead, it requires a collaborative approach between the numerous stakeholders.
Social Impact Assessment Frameworks
Social impact assessment comes in a variety of unique flavors, each relevant to different contexts and purposes.
While having so many options means there’s a social impact assessment approach that works for everyone, it can also make it challenging to determine the right framework for your organization. For example, social impact assessment conducted by staff at a small nonprofit would likely be quite different from one conducted by a large corporation.
In this context, social impact assessment frameworks can help create a clear strategy, process, and goals for your assessment. Before you begin your assessment, decide on which framework you’ll employ. Popular frameworks for social impact assessment include:
United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Theory of Change
United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Investing (PRIs)
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards
REDF’s Social Return on Investment (SROI)
Impact Management Project’s Five Dimensions of Impact
However, no matter the framework, social impact assessment professionals always abide by certain guiding principles. For these practitioners, social impact assessment should be:
Timely. It should consider the project's entire life cycle, at every stage, from planning to audit.
Reasonable. Its scope, scale, and intensity should be commensurate with its subject.
Participatory. It should be inclusive, respectful, meaningful, and tailored to the needs of potentially impacted communities, engaging local knowledge, experience, and values.
Rigorous. It should involve an objective measurement and analysis of up-to-date quantitative and qualitative data.
Adaptive. It should monitor and review real-time data and adjust interventions to most effectively reduce negative social impacts and enhance positive ones.
When you approach your framework decision with these principles in mind, you start your social impact assessment from a place of integrity, accountability, transparency, and equity. With this in mind, let’s now look at a real-world example of social impact assessment.
Social Impact Assessment in Action: A Powerful Example
In 2019, the Siemer Institute, which oversees a network of programs and partnerships across the United States, recognized the need for a more frequent, up-to-date social impact assessment and reporting structure. As their network expanded, they lacked a standard approach or dashboard to consolidate, report on, and assess their outcomes data.
In fact, most partners were reporting via emailed spreadsheets, making it difficult for the Siemer Institute’s evaluator to draw any conclusions about the impact of the entire network or give partners any suggestions for improvement. In order to help them establish shared outcome measures across their network of 150+ partners and provide real-time insights into the collective impact of the network, they decided to work with SureImpact to develop a custom social impact assessment tool and logic model framework.
With their collective partner data available in one place, the Siemer Institute was able to calculate the number of families served, what services were received, and how family stability was impacted.
What they found was impressive! Most families who engaged with Siemer Institute programs showed significant changes in self-sufficiency from program entry to program exit. Moreover, via this collaborative approach, they were able to identify a relationship between the number of service hours provided and a family's housing stability.
Based on these results, the Siemer Institute has since expanded its network to address more communities' needs across the United States.
How to Conduct Social Impact Assessment: 12 Steps
Now that we have the necessary social impact assessment background under our belts, we can walk through the twelve steps necessary for assessing, managing, and reporting on social impact.
While we’ve arranged these steps linearly for the sake of clarity and understanding, social impact assessment is an iterative process. As you move through your own social impact assessment, you’ll likely find yourself moving both forward and backward along these steps.
Activity and Project Concept. As the first step for social impact assessment, define the overall purpose and need of a proposed or existing project or activity.
Context. What is the general context (legal, social, political, economic) in which planned activities will be implemented? Consult with experts and stakeholders.
Initial Screen. Determine positive and adverse social impacts resulting from proposed/existing activities as well as who is (or might be) impacted. Identify all the probable social implications of the policy change or project.
Identify Stakeholders. Identify all stakeholders (i.e., everyone who will be impacted) and map them onto the social impacts determined during Step 3: Initial Screen.
Plan. Make a detailed plan for how you will engage, inform, consult, and report to specific stakeholders, including each impacted community member, staff, funders, and policymakers. Define the specific output and outcome metrics you will use to measure your impact.
Engagement. Conduct in-depth meetings, interviews, and surveys with key stakeholders. Plan to also identify vulnerable populations (and their specific needs) and provide clear information about planned activities.
Assess the Baseline Condition. Collect initial qualitative and quantitative baseline data on demographics, socio-economics, community organization, socio-political structures, and community needs and values.
Predict, Analyze, and Assess Impacts. Evaluate the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts on the target communities. Consider your attribution (the degree to which your actions brought about results) to each outcome.
Avoid. If the community indicates resistance or there’s a high likelihood of significant adverse impacts, then return to previous steps to design an alternative project in collaboration with stakeholders.
Mitigate. For less severe impacts, collaborate with stakeholders to develop a plan for monitoring and mitigating negative social impacts.
Enhance Benefits and Opportunities. Analyze qualitative and quantitative data to support additional programmatic benefits.
Ongoing Engagement and Monitoring. Continue to regularly work with stakeholders to understand and address evolving risks and opportunities. Adapt activities as needed.
As you might imagine, this process can quickly break down when communication between stakeholders is siloed. Moreover, your social impact assessment should be more than a pretty report that’s quickly filed away and forgotten. Instead, as a best practice, plan for a regular feedback loop that shares real-time data between all invested parties.
What Next? Making the Most of Your Social Impact Assessment Tools
With so many moving parts, social impact assessment can be a complex and often overwhelming task. Developing that consistent feedback loop between staff, clients, and funders isn’t necessarily an easy job.
Because of this, we recommend using comprehensive social impact assessment, management, and reporting software to make your work more efficient and impactful.
Whether you’re a nonprofit, a government entity, or a foundation, as your organization moves beyond simply measuring outputs to becoming impact-centric, your software should not only be able to keep up, but also offer functions that improve your social impact assessment processes.
Your social impact assessment solution should include:
User-friendly data collection. Choose a natively mobile solution that allows frontline providers to manage their cases on the go. Ideally, your solution offers an intuitive experience that requires little to no training. As a result, you can get running as quickly as possible.
Enterprise-level security. Maintain your constituents’ trust by keeping their personal information secure. For example, SureImpact’s software meets HIPAA, ISO27001, 42-CFR Part 2, and GDPR standards for data storage, access, and transmission. Your software should also follow a role-based security model that allows you to limit different users’ access to your organization’s data.
Customizable, integrated dashboards. Give stakeholders a centralized, holistic way to track and measure progress at the client, program, and organizational levels.
Timely reporting. You shouldn’t have to wait for a report at the end of the quarter to know the success of your program. Instead, access up-to-the-minute visibility on short and long-term outcome metrics. As frontline providers input qualitative and quantitative data, quickly measure and report its impact.
Impact sharing tools. Impact sharing tools allow you to seamlessly share your data and insights with all relevant funders, nonprofits, and community stakeholders. As a result, funders have a better understanding of the impact of their investments, and nonprofits can communicate new trends and needs as they occur.
Affordable. Social impact assessment shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg. Choose a provider that offers different functions and license levels based on your organization’s needs.
No matter what, you shouldn’t have to go about your social impact assessment alone. It takes—literally—a whole community! SureImpact was designed with precisely this in mind. Your social impact assessment tools should support this collaborative approach, connecting nonprofits, partners, funders, collaborators, grant managers, and evaluators to address the urgent, complex issues of our time.
Ready to learn more about social impact assessment? Check out these resources for an in-depth look at the different sides of this sundry tool.
What Is Impact Assessment? A Complete Introduction. Interested in how social impact assessment fits into the larger impact assessment field? This introductory guide can help!
Back to the Basics of Impact Measurement. SureImpact’s free eBook details a straightforward process for collecting, assessing, and sharing your nonprofit’s impact data.
A Playbook for Designing Social Impact Measurement. With this guide from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, rethink your social impact assessment metrics.