The Common Approach Theory of Change

The Common Approach theory of change is rooted in the belief that impact measurement can be improved by making it more relevant to social purpose organizations (SPOs). For measurement to be made more relevant to SPOs, the tension between flexibility and uniformity must be addressed. Individual organizations need to be able to measure what matters most to them while ensuring that networks of organizations, funders, grantmakers, and investors can also gather information on collective impact.

We believe that in order to address this problem, some systemic shifts to the ecosystem of social purpose organizations are needed. By drawing on existing and ongoing work in this space to develop standards that balance flexibility and uniformity, we believe this change can be realized.

Common Approach has developed four community-driven standards that we believe will help social purpose organizations, and those who support and invest in them, find the balance needed in order for impact measurement to be more valuable to everyone. Our standards are not focused on making measurement more rigorous or more accurate—rather, they make it more useful, more efficient and eventually, more focused on who is being impacted.

Key learnings about standards:

  1. Research has shown, somewhat counterintuitively, that flexibility is needed to allow a standard to survive.
  2. Standards are communities, not documents. Standards documents become out of date quickly, but as long as there is a community committed to staying aligned and advancing together, the standards provide useful guidelines that will evolve.
  3. Meet people where they’re at—make sure it is possible for the standard to be adopted—and ratchet up the rigour later.

For us, better impact means “decision making, ways of working and resource allocation are based on the social, environmental and cultural measures articulated by the people whose lives are most affected, leading to increased well-being, equality and reduced environmental degradation.”

We borrowed this vision statement from our friends at Social Value International to signal that we share a common vision with them. We added the italicized phrase to show what the Common Approach hopes to add to our shared vision: a way to aggregate measures without losing the voices—the articulations—of those who are most affected.

Theory fo Change infographic
For us, a better impact measurement ecosystem is one that can balance flexibility and uniformity.
Balancing flexibility and uniformity
Impact measurement is more relevant for social purpose organizations.

  • Social purpose organizations make their social impact measurement practice what they need it to be for their own purposes.
  • Social purpose organizations feel more confident measuring their impact.
  • Impact measurement is more attuned to the perspectives of those whose lives are most affected.
  • Impact measurement feels easier and is more time and cost-efficient.

Grantmakers, investors and networks can gain insights from a portfolio of dissimilar indicators.

  • Impact measurement is more effective for learning and improving.
Assumptions and necessary conditions

Our work in making impact measurement better for social purpose organizations is one part of a bigger story that centres the voices of those most affected by these ecosystems.

We are counting on social purpose organizations choosing to measure in order to improve their operations and deliver more positive impact, rather than just to meet the data requests of grantmakers and funders. A shift is required so that social purpose organizations (SPOs) are empowered to articulate their own indicators and metrics—not standard setters, not investors, not grantmakers.

We are committed to collaboration and compatibility over competition. There are others already doing this work; we are eager to contribute to these efforts alongside them.

In order to truly centre those most affected in impact measurement, a system power shift is needed. We collaborate to make that happen.

Our work alone will not be sufficient to achieve impact. Other things need to happen. We are counting on:

  • SPOs moving their impact tracking to specialized software.
  • Funders (especially foundations and governments) continuing the current trend of being less prescriptive about what indicators are tracked and what formats data is submitted in.
  • Other standard-setters continue their good work in related fields. We still need global goals (such as the UN SDGs) and guidance for companies that are not social-purpose driven.
  • Continued development of measurement tools and software that align with the Common Approach Standards and that are accessible to SPOs.

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