Does measuring our impact matter?

A number of us at BSR have been asking this question. As a nonprofit organization working with business, how should we measure and understand our impact? How do we know if we’re achieving our mission?

These questions don’t only affect BSR; the topic of impact measurement features regularly in nonprofit circles as NGOs, social enterprises, and foundations grapple with how to capture and communicate the changes they are creating as a result of their work and that of their grantees. Countless articles show different approaches to impact measurement, such as adding up numbers of activities or beneficiaries, to more complex calculations using proxies to estimate social impact in monetary terms, such as the “Social Return on Investment” guide developed by the London Business School and others. 

In the corporate world, we see companies’ efforts reflected in their sustainability reports, which typically place a company’s impacts into environmental, social, or governance categories. In these reports, content generally ranges from demonstrating how a company is meeting its basic legal requirements such as occupational health and safety, to whether the company is going beyond minimum requirements to effect positive change for employees, customers, or other stakeholders, or, in the case of the environment, whether the company is reducing negative effects such as carbon emissions.  

So how does BSR, which works with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies, measure how well we are fulfilling our mission of working with business to create a just and sustainable world?

In the past, we have relied on regular feedback from our members, the recipients of our consulting work, and partners in our collaborative initiatives to understand how much progress we’ve been making. This year—as outlined in the “Outcomes and Impacts” section of our recently published BSR Report 2013-14—we’ve formalized this process through a framework designed to analyze the impact of our projects across three categories: outputs, or the final products we deliver; outcomes, or new actions undertaken as a result of our work; and impacts, or positive social or environmental changes that occur as a result of our work. For all of our work, we will be using three dimensions to analyze our impact:

  • Significance of the outcome, such as whether the outcome represents a large and permanent step toward the achievement of BSR’s mission.
  • Scale of the outcome, such as the number of people, organizations, or companies affected by the outcome.
  • Level of attribution to BSR for the outcome, such as whether our work was directly responsible for the outcome, contributed indirectly to the outcome, and/or accelerated the timing of the outcome.

In our latest BSR Report and in future reports, we will share our analysis of our outcomes and impacts, and how we plan to apply those lessons in our future work. In the meantime, we are calling on all BSR members and partners to help us understand the sustainability outcomes we are creating through our work to gain a deeper sense of our impact.

After all, our ability to make progress depends on our collaboration with others. As we continue our work on outcomes and impacts, we invite you to join us in a discussion about how BSR can most effectively work with you to create a just and sustainable world.