“If you don’t account for your impact properly, you have no right to call yourself a social anything” – Alex Nicholls.
Measuring impact: it’s a challenge all social entrepreneurs face. Is an organization or movement really serving the good of society if there is no evidence to support such a claim? Where should the evidence gathering start, particularly in a space where the problems are becoming ever larger, more urgent, complex, and interwoven?
In the human rights space, questions around subjectivity, contribution vs. attribution, confidentiality, and time horizons combine with the hairiness of politics, invisible influencers such as belief systems and cultural norms, and the capricious non-linear nature of social sector problem-solving.
We are in a new era of global problem solving where human rights threads through all sectors, and more than 90 percent of the SDGs. The issues we face today as a global society are complex, growing exponentially, and require a more collaborative and thoughtful approach. These problems are interconnected and rooted in fundamental imbalances of justice.
Once siloed issue areas: climate change and women’s empowerment are now better cast as climate justice and gender justice. Preserving the environment is about people—the marginalized will first feel the impact of our collective failure to address rising temperatures. As the #timesup movement has shown, women’s empowerment is no longer a nice to have but a must have. There’s an urgency to not only address injustice head on but to do so holistically, and to measure the impact of these efforts. This will take a change in mindset and new approaches.
The Skoll World Forum panel “Impact Measurement: Collaborating for Human Rights” brought together an incredible group of leaders across various ecosystems to talk about some of the ways to approach impact measurement in an age of interconnectedness, ultimately in order to bend the arc toward justice. There was representation from field-practitioners to movement builders to academics and intergovernmental organizations in Emmily Koiti, Youth Representative from the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission in South Sudan; Alex Nicholls, Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford U.K.; Peggy Hicks, Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, and Andrew Hudson Executive Director of Crisis Action an International Human Rights NGO working to protect civilians in the most conflict-strewn environments of our modern world.
The panel presented two relatively simple frameworks for consideration. Alex Nicholls took us through a continuum that begins with asking the question of “why measure?”. Answer this first, he says, because impact measurement is difficult and expensive. The answer will help determine how you prioritize and target your measurement process. Whether you are a non-profit, an advocacy group, or a funder, start with this question, says Nicholls. “You might want to know your impact to organize your activities, to allocate your resources, decide which programs work and which don’t, establish a hierarchy of effects,” he said. “You might also need an external set of data to please your funders or governments or other organizations. Benchmarking data can be used by others in your sector to help organize their activities better, so they know what constitutes good and bad practice.”
Once you can answer the question “why measure?”, the next is “for whom?”. Followed by: “who measures?”, “what do they measure?”, “when?” and finally, “how?”. The how is actually the easiest part, says Nicholls, given that there are loads of frameworks available. It becomes difficult with a paradox of choice if you don’t start with the “why” and proceed through the other questions in the continuum as ordered.
–Easier said than done, right? Nicholls recognizes that skepticism. “Once you ask yourself the question ‘why’ and answer that strategically, the truth is it might be more than one answer, to appeal to several strategic objectives,” he said. “Then you’re going to ask yourself who cares about the data? Different audiences will want different data, and for different reasons. You need a hierarchy of your stakeholders or your audiences to begin to understand which are more strategically important.”
Your beneficiaries should be at the center of all these questions, says Nicholls. “If you want really good data, you have to be close to your beneficiaries,” he said. “They need to be deeply involved in helping you collect data. They’re the people who know (what and when), right?”
Peggy Hicks’ MARTIN framework helped to deepen this discussion. Measurability, Attribution, Risk, Time-frame, Inference, and Nature. She spent 10 years at Human Rights Watch as Global Advocacy Director and another five working with the UN. She’s currently the UN’s Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Some of the things that we’re measuring are some of the more difficult things,” she said “I take Alex’s point that you can still measure them, but there’s qualitative changes rather than quantitative changes. Measure-ability is difficult.”
Not everything is cut and dried. “Each of the factors in the six-part framework are accelerated or exacerbated in a collective setting,” she says. Contribution is not everyone’s first choice seat at the table, but if we want to solve the world’s most pressing problems, it will require not only attribution but a good deal of contribution. As funders, we know that when our dollars are matched or added to by other funders, they go further. So why don’t we pursue this kind of collaboration as often as we should? By sharing attribution, we also share risk, making it more palatable.
“We also must reconsider our usual results timeframes in this new era of problem-solving”, says Hicks. To fix significant, complex, pressing issues, funders’ time-frames must be both realistic and ambitious. Building a peaceful and prosperous world is the work of generations.
Moving through Hicks’ framework we come to inference—which may be the most challenging of the six for many funders. While quantifying progress toward a more favorable status quo is a challenge, it is almost impossible to prove the negative. “We’re not proving what we’ve achieved, but what we’ve stopped from happening,” said Hicks. “Within the UN we are at least looking at a prevention framework to help us to do this, especially when it comes to preventing conflict. We want to engage in different ways because a lot of what we do is about deterrence.”
The final piece of Hicks’ MARTIN framework, N, stands for nature. This signifies the importance of deep understanding of the true context in which we work. Take political decisions as an example. These decisions are often made within sensitive contexts. Hicks mentioned how Emmily Koiti has lived an example of this through her organization that seeks to mobilize, inspire, and organize young South Sudanese men and women towards working for a peaceful, united and prosperous South Sudan.
“When you look at the work that they’ve done in just getting the representation of women and others into the (peace) process, it’s very concrete and achievable,” she said. “If we agree at the outset that achieving just this does make a difference in peace processes, and I think there’s an enormous amount of research that shows it does, then that’s it.”
The work of Koiti’s organization also had a substantive influence in recent negotiations. “Now think about how difficult it would be to actually get good data on what has happened within those negotiations,” said Hicks. “The political actors are never going to say that having these people present made them actually do their jobs and listen to what the people on the ground need as opposed to what they want for their own party and themselves. So that is the political nature of the negotiations.” By just being a woman at the table representing civil society during peace talks in South Sudan creates an invisible but imperative layer of accountability.
Those most deeply entrenched and affected by the complex problems of our day should be the first consulted in shaping sustainable solutions. Are funders and government stakeholders willing to hold ourselves accountable to our own biases through this process? Can those actors forfeit attribution for generating an idea toward a more sustainable outcome?
These principles are at the heart of Koiti’s collaborative work. “In South Sudan, we have ethnic tensions from an ongoing conflict,” said Koiti. Even in these coalitions, you find different civil society organizations and youth organizations and women’s organizations are struggling with the reflection of the diversity of our ethnicity in South Sudan. As long as these coalitions are not reflecting the diversity of the South Sudanese ethnicities, that alone questions the legitimacy of their views. You would think that just because we are practitioners and we are good at what we do regardless of where we come from, we should be able to influence the process without the legitimacy of the positions being questioned. But it happens.”
People will always be desperately flawed, and like the problems we face today, are deeply interconnected. There’s little we can do to solve for our very nature but there is much we can do to go beyond it and encourage those around us to do the same. How to continue this vital work—often in the face of deeply discouraging situations? For one, you find a way to measure and share your wins. Those wins will give you and your partners the steam we all need to continue in our collective efforts.