Common Foundations: Case Study
Four approaches to impact evaluation
Social impact consultant, Cathy Lang, sees capacity and resources in the social sector as challenges to evaluation. She sees evaluation becoming more professionalized, but has concerns that it might veer far from the design and developmental processes. She notes that the learning that can be gained from evaluation might not get shared beyond (or even within) the organization. When (consulting) cooperative founder, Kerri Klein, was working in not-for-profit development, she experienced a “dance of deception.”
Compliance meant that organizations pretended they had answers and funders pretended to believe them. In reality, the impacts that result from most social impact projects are nuanced and offer opportunities for individual and organizational growth. Therefore, Kerri takes an iterative approach to evaluation that follows a system of reflection> action> learning> adaptation. The method allows groups to embed strategic learning into the process of evaluation.
Similarly, Cathy’s training in adult education and social work means that her approach to evaluation links to overall program design and takes into account organizational and community contexts. She notes that effective practice promotes community vitality. Seeing the big-picture context allows social purpose organizations and funders and investors to link their evaluation with action, and communicate results.
By working in a participatory, and culturally and contextually responsive way, Laurie works with social purpose organizations to discover unexpected, emergent and exciting layers of impact. She views impact evaluators as practitioners who can identify the real impacts of a project through the process, rather than just looking for ways to demonstrate the accomplishment of the pre-set goals. Garth’s approach is also highly collaborative. He finds that understanding the context of day-to-day work supports developing a way to achieve the broader impact that social purpose organizations are aiming for. Kerri cites critical reflection (Rolfe et al. 2011) as a way to move groups from “what happened” to deeper understanding. Using the framework of “What? So what? Now what?” Kerri helps groups to move evaluation from merely transactional (what the funder needs to know) to transformational.
The Common Foundations in practice
Besides helping social purpose organizations with social impact, Cathy pays attention to ways she can work to advance the social sector and systems change. Common Foundations offer a way to help social purpose organizations build universal practices that represent the fundamental steps involved in planning and evaluating social impact. Cathy sees the efficacy of the Common Foundations as a tool that might prompt groups to ask themselves, “What are we trying to achieve?”
As a tool, Laurie sees the value of the Common Foundations as helping social purpose organizations to frame the steps for evaluation projects. Laurie also notes the potential for scaling the data collection up through the use of data portals. She stresses that Common Foundations could change how organizations and funders in Canada understand impacts. For Laurie, a system where everyone could be using the same high-level metrics increases the opportunity for every organization to contribute to the whole system of change.
Kerri describes the Common Approach as rigorous, consistent and adaptable. She sees that evaluation practitioners could use Common Foundations to integrate strategic learning into their work in a more focused way. For Kerri, the data collection possibilities might address “data overwhelm.” She notes that organizations are collecting data, but lack the tools and resources to analyze their results. Next level is the potential to contextualize and assess collective social impacts across Canada.
A final idea from Garth is to include Common Foundations in presentations to groups who may be new to impact measurement, are starting a new measurement initiative, or are building on their existing measurement capacity. He believes that a standard for impact evaluation is essential to the process of developing mission, vision, strategy, and operational plans for every organization regardless of size.
Help us improve our data by taking the Common Foundations self-assessment! We are eager to hear not only from social purpose organizations in the beginning stages of implementing impact measurement but also from those with an established practice.
On April 21, Common Approach to Impact Measurement held its first Annual General Meeting, where we had the pleasure of introducing our newest board members! We are very excited to have these three new voices joining the Common Approach Board.
The Common Foundations reiterate the essential practices that are common to many different approaches and frameworks and are therefore compatible with many other standards. Let’s take a look at how Demonstrating Value’s framework and resources align with the Common Foundation’s minimum standards.