August 31, 2016

How We Measure Impact

“Measuring impact” is one of the biggest conversations in the social sector today. New advances have made the science of measurement more precise and comprehensive than ever before. But as the science gets more granular, the art of measurement gets trickier.

So I’d like to share today how we’re measuring our impact internally, against one of our foundational goals—to change the way the public sector works.

By “change the way the public sector works,” I mean that we are driven not only by our desire to help save and improve people’s lives, but by a belief that the status quo in our field is too often destructive or wasteful. Our theory of change is to partner with ambitious and visionary players within large institutions, and, together, to push those institutions to incorporate responsive, human-centered, and politically aware approaches into their work. We want to see more of the money invested in social change go to sustainable, positive change.

It’s an ambitious goal. Measuring impact is never simple; but on a goal this big, it can feel sisyphean.

The first time we tried to measure our progress was with our first major report. It was January 2011, and although we had secured enough work to rent an office and hire our first few employees, we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to demonstrate our way of working. The Arab Spring had just begun; as we watched it spread to Egypt, we felt compelled to act. We worried that the West’s typical interventions could exacerbate the tense situation. So we took a somewhat crazy step. We flew to Cairo, shortly after President Mubarak stepped down, and spent three weeks conducting an immersive ethnographic study across the country. We wrote up our findings, and began forcing them on all of our contacts at the World Bank, State Department, and the UN.

In the months following, we wrestled with how best to understand the impact of that report. We hoped it helped bring the voices of everyday Egyptians into international policy deliberations. We were able to track at least some of the ways that it moved through networks of decisionmakers, but we also had to get comfortable with the fact that progress is incremental, and metrics are often tangential. Getting to measure improvements in people’s lives is a rare privilege in our work.

But we were lucky enough to see one sign of success: The World Bank engaged us to do a similar ethnographic study of post-revolutionary Tunisia. It was our first (paid) opportunity to advocate for our methods and ways of working. That project led to a fruitful partnership with the World Bank that continues today.

Now, five years in, Reboot has a number of incremental indicators to motivate us forward. We count the recent shift in policy dialogues. Critical institutions, like our clients at the World Bank and the UN, are embracing more adaptive, contextual, and participatory approaches to their work. We do not take full credit for those changes, but we are glad to be one of many voices calling for them.

We also count our competitors. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery; I can list at least six similar startups that have emerged in recent years (with many referencing our work as a model, and a few even pulling copy directly from our website). Just as we are excited to see major institutions adapt their ways of working, we are excited to see our methods spread among consulting firms. Inspiring an army of like-minded actors is central to our theory of change.

But first and foremost, we count our clients. We are lucky to work with passionate visionaries at some of the most influential institutions in the world, and they keep coming back to us with new challenges. They are willing to listen to us as we push them to challenge assumptions, and they’re willing to challenge our assumptions in turn. The projects we’re able to achieve together are indicators that the social sector can change for the better.

Like all sustainable change, improving the social sector is an incremental process. But we are proud, and I’m personally grateful to Reboot’s community of clients and colleagues who are inspiring us forward.

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This blog post is based on Zack’s talk at Slush 2015 on building a social enterprise.
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