The process of writing a book, as most people can imagine, is fundamentally a challenging one. In the case of non-fiction, it requires discipline, time, patience, research, knowledge and skill. Throw in a complex and nuanced subject and you have a project that can take many years. It took Alnoor Ebrahim about four years to write Measuring Social Change, a book that examines how people wanting to achieve positive societal impact can better understand their performance and accountability. In reality, however, it was a book he’d been thinking about for a decade and it incorporates the insights he’s developed over a lifetime as an academic.
A professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Ebrahim is interested in the challenges facing the likes of nonprofits, social enterprises and public agencies in determining how they know if what they’re doing is actually making a difference. "What has been the value for money?” was a question he was asked time and again by those at the top, people who might be pulled in many directions from a variety of funders. “That was really important for me, in writing this book, to tackle questions that leaders were struggling with on a regular basis,” he tells Invest for Good.Posing questions
He came to the conclusion that measuring your social impact, regardless of whether you’re running a charity or a profit-making enterprise, is first and foremost about being clear on your strategy. That clarity comes from answering what he calls three “foundational” questions. In business language, the first is your value proposition. This is, Ebrahim explains, “both what you are trying to achieve in terms of a social goal and who your target market is”.
The second question asks how you will bring about your intended social impact; how might you get from A to B to deliver those results. Lastly is your accountability, or how you’ll “hold your feet to the fire”. It’s not primarily about being accountable to the outside world, he clarifies, but how you are accountable to your own goals.
Social change strategies
It gets a little more complicated when Ebrahim explains that he’s identified four strategies of social change: niche, integrated, emergent and ecosystem. It was a framework that took him a long time to get right. Many versions of these strategies were presented to different groups of people before agreeing on the final four that made it into the book.
The professor explains that your metrics very much depend on which of these strategies you’re using. A niche strategy, for example, typically focuses on short-term “output” metrics, e.g. the response time of an ambulance service. By contrast, an ecosystem strategy would measure your “outcomes” – to what degree, for instance, you are able to end chronic homelessness. Measuring this would require coordination with different service providers, from substance abuse counselors to shelters, and each would separately report on their findings. Measuring outcomes, therefore, is more complex. He distinguishes between individual outcomes, lasting changes in the lives of individuals; and societal outcomes, results achieved at a community or societal level, which can take many years.
Ebrahim has spent 25 years working as an academic and in that time he's become committed to researching the management of social change organisations and questions of accountability. “I think the most important thing is having a research agenda that you feel in your heart truly matters,” he says. As part of the process of writing this book, the author embedded himself with frontline staff in a small number of organisations, “to try to understand their challenges from their perspective”.
What he finds especially rewarding is being able to then draw conclusions that would apply to a larger group of people. “There's an immersion aspect to research, which I find to be immensely valuable in terms of interacting with people,” he explains, “and then pulling oneself out, standing, in a sense, on a balcony and looking at the landscape and saying, ‘okay, what is generalisable here?’ That's a very interesting and stimulating intellectual challenge for me.”
This perspective has enabled him to see some of the challenges facing the likes of impact investors looking for tools to measure their outcomes or their longer-term impact. This becomes the final chapter of Measuring Social Change, which sets about helping investors to be clear on their goals, their strategy and finally which tools they need to analyse the effectiveness of that strategy. What they ultimately learn can potentially be useful to other organisations or individuals working to solve the same set of problems. Data transparency
That’s why he believes there should be more transparency around data and more willingness to share it, to get to a point where you can make meaningful comparisons, especially within industries or subsectors. Not only would that help impact investors and social entrepreneurs make better-informed investment decisions, it would also help certain sectors make progress on intractable problems. Ebrahim mentions drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) as one industry in which a number of different players could agree on a common set of metrics related to what constitutes clean water and the access to it. A similar approach could be taken with homelessness, since it’s clear what zero chronic homelessness would look like as an outcome.
Ebrahim does think a lot of progress has been made on the measurement question, with the “impact investing field far ahead of where it was five years ago”. He talks about IRIS+, a catalog of generally accepted performance metrics that has been developed by the Global Impact Investing Network. He notes that IRIS+ is currently building core metrics sets in various industries such as education, sustainable forestry, and sustainable water management, as well as for each of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, the Impact Management Project has engaged over 2000 organisations to build global consensus around a process for how investors can measure and report on impact. He says that we are now just beginning to see the emergence of third-party analysts, industry professionals whose job it is to pore over data at an arm’s length from investors, similar to those currently working in corporate finance. But this requires commitment among many different people working towards the same goal.
“Any investor and any enterprise that can be clear about the answers to these three strategic questions,” he argues, “will then be much better positioned to figure out what it is they should be measuring.”
Equally, the professor believes that commitment is required to achieve the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, ambitious targets that include tackling climate change. “The SDGs are not going to be delivered by governments acting alone,” he asserts. “The biggest and most important set of players are corporations. Otherwise it’s simply not going to be possible. The commitment to societal value, not just shareholder value, is essential.” With climate change, in particular, time is running out.
Scientists have warned that we only have about a decade to contain global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, beyond which we open ourselves up to catastrophic consequences. Ebrahim says: “When I talk to my colleagues who are working on climate-change related issues, our window is very, very small, but the impact is potentially very long-term.” In this case, he argues, the metrics aren’t the problem – it's commitment and strategy that are the issue.
Given the perilous state of the planet, does he feel optimistic about our future? “I’m optimistic about the commitments that young people have today,” he replies. “Among the 500 students we have at Fletcher [School of Law and Diplomacy], every single one is committed to social change. It’s a remarkable and, admittedly, an unusual environment to be in.” His concern is that global problems require collective action, “an ability to see the world as an integrated place, and there aren’t job descriptions for that sort of thing”. He is incredibly proud of his students, he adds, who helped him with the book’s progress. “They were so sincere and earnest in their engagement and that, I think, ultimately made for a better product.”
The other thing that helped him was, rather unexpectedly, the poets Seamus Heaney and Tomas Tranströmer. “They helped me realise that the universe of human experience is bigger than the world you inhabit in your head. Just to pull you out a little bit and give you a view from somebody else’s eyes. I find poetry and literature useful for that purpose.” He also singles out Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk for writing one of his favorite books, A Strangeness in My Mind. “I think it’s actually very crucial in our crazy lives, to have something that makes us pause and pulls us out of our own narrative,” he says.
It doesn’t sound like Ebrahim spends that long taking breaks, though. His next project will be looking at what kinds of strategies you can use to address ecosystem-level problems such as climate change. “I’m hoping we’ll get some managerial insights, leadership insights, coming out of that work.” Given his past achievements, it’s a pretty safe bet he will.
Alnoor Ebrahim is a professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He also serves on advisory boards to the Global Impact Investing Network, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and previously served on Acumen’s Lean Data advisory council. Measuring Social Change is his latest book and can be bought from various booksellers.