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6 Reflections on Impact Evaluation

by Tara Murphy Forde, director of fund performance

What does “better evaluation” mean to an impact investor like Global Partnerships? Last week, I attended the Next Generation Evaluation Conference to explore this very question. Conference hosts Stanford Social Innovation Review and FSG convened impact evaluation thought leaders, nonprofits, government entities, funders, corporations and academics to engage in cross sector dialogue. While there weren’t many impact investors in the room, there was a shared understanding that growth, experimentation and innovation within the social sector require new frameworks for how we think about evaluation.

We discussed three game-changing approaches that are shaping the future of impact evaluation:

  1. Developmental evaluation: a real-time, learning oriented, feedback-based, and insight- driven evaluation approach used to inform program design and implementation;
  2. Shared measurement: when groups of organizations come together to co-determine outcomes and indicators, share data and learn from each other; and
  3. Big data: a term coined by experts to explain the volume, variety, and velocity of the data becoming available through the explosion of digital infrastructure.

Over the course of the day, it became increasingly clear to me that we as impact investors need to find our seat at the table. As participants in an emergent market looking to harness the positive power of enterprise, it is crucial that we reach across sectors to discuss what we mean by “impact”. As an industry we talk a lot about impact measurement. However we need to be better prepared to ask and answer why, how, for whom, and under what conditions specific interventions might really work. Quantitative data will undoubtedly play an important role in informing our investment decisions, but that data cannot be consumed in isolation.

With this in mind I walked away from the conference with the following reflections on what the “next generation of impact evaluation” might look like for Global Partnerships and the impact investing industry as a whole:

  1. Expected outcomes will be rooted in a clearly articulated theory of why and how we think an intervention will yield a certain level of impact.
  2. Measurements will be simplified, clearly defined, and analyzed in context.
  3. Data collection will be feasible, cost effective and scalable.
  4. Technology will be harnessed to increase real-time visibility and decrease reporting burdens.
  5. Evaluation cycles will be shorter, involve key constituents, and will be oriented towards improvement.
  6. Evaluation results will provide stakeholders with the information and confidence they need to make timely decisions.

I think the impact investing industry can build on learning from other social sector actors while bringing a fresh perspective and set of demands to the table. In doing so I am hopeful that we can collectively rise to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing, increasingly complex and highly interconnected nature of the problems we look to address.

Learn more about impact evaluation:

1. FSG published a learning brief featuring a dozen interviews with foundation leaders and many others. The brief starts a conversation around the next generation's impact evaluation characteristics and approaches. Read it here.

2. Is focusing too much on impact measurement detracting nonprofits from their mission-oriented work? A Huffington Post Impact article explores this and two other debates around impact measurement that arose from the Global Social Business Summit held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on November 8, 2013. Read it here.

3. The Stanford Social Innovation Review explores the Seven Deadly Sins of Impact Evaluation. Read it here.

4. Global Partnerships' view on why measuring impact is so complex. Read it here.

Blog Tags: Big Data   Developmental evaluation   FSG   impact evaluation   measuring impact   Next Generation Evaluation   Shared Measurement      Stanford Social Innovation Review   

Next Generation Evaluation conference attendees attend a session.
Three of the approaches discussed at the Next Generation Evaluation Conference included: developmental evaluation, shared measurement, and big data. Photo © Global Partnerships 2013.

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