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Key takeaways:

  • Social impact measurement is challenging for many corporate philanthropy leaders, but the pressure is rising to provide executives with tangible metrics.
  • It’s important to recognize that external outcomes will impact your program. Economic downturns, pandemics, etc., could all negatively impact the initiatives you’re working toward.
  • Work in collaboration with your nonprofit partners. They know their programs best and understand the kind of data they’re capable of providing.
  • Be sure to provide your nonprofit partners with support when needed. Some companies permit their grantees to utilize a portion of their funds for impact storytelling.
  • Consider your desired outcomes early on and build them into your programs from the start.

When it comes to proving the value of your community investments, executives and stakeholders want you to put concrete numbers on outcomes — but philanthropy isn’t a business.

Translating volunteerism and other social impact work into reportable data is a struggle for many corporate philanthropy leaders.

Terence Lim highlighted this challenge in his report Measuring the Value of Corporate Philanthropy.

He wrote, “Social and business benefits are often long-term or intangible, which make systemic measurement complex. And yet: Corporate philanthropy faced increasing pressure to show it is as strategic, cost-effective, and value-enchanting as possible.”

If you can’t prove your impact, then the credibility of your program could be in trouble.

Be Realistic About the Outcomes You Can Measure

Ali Mathias, Head of Community Responsibility Strategy and Vice President of the MassMutual Foundation, said for many, measuring impact is an ongoing journey.

During an ESG & CSR Board panel discussion on corporate philanthropy strategies, she said it’s taken a few years to truly be able to articulate their impact, saying, “It’s definitely an art.”

Four years ago, Ali said they began partnering with Impact Mission Measurement, which has allowed them to transition from measuring outputs — like the number of people served — to outcomes like those who received a pay increase or saw an improved credit score.

“We’re in year four of this partnership, and we’ve only just reached the point where we can very clearly articulate our four pillar outcome areas,” she shared.

The team at the MassMutual Foundation looks at social impact measurement from three different levels; direct impact, correlation, and causation.

“There are so many things that happen in our community that can create the outcomes or that can contribute to the outcomes that we are targeting.”

Ali Mathias, MassMutual

For example, MassMutual works to help community members increase their savings and reduce debt. Amid a worldwide pandemic, rising inflation, and an economic downturn, those goals will be more difficult to achieve regardless of how many programs the foundation invests in.

Because of these nuances, Ali said understanding what you can directly impact is key to determining what you should measure.

“We’re really being realistic about the big picture of what we can measure. We think about measurement on the individual level, we think about the organizational level, and we think about the community level,” she said.

Your nonprofit partners are typically able to report on the individual level of the clients they’re serving. Then, your grantee portfolio can demonstrate your impact on the greater community.

Work in Collaboration with Your Nonprofit Partners

When measuring your social impact initiatives, it’s essential to involve your nonprofit partners.

At the Motorola Solutions Foundation, Executive Director Karem Perez said they allow their grant patterns to largely determine what metrics they feel are most appropriate for their program.

“You know your program and your capabilities best; you tell us what you’re able to report on based on this specific program. Then we’ll hold you accountable for reporting on that.”

Karem Perez, Motorola Solutions

This approach is particularly effective because each funded program is completely unique. How could you establish a consistent set of metrics when one program was focused on awarding scholarships and one aimed to provide mental health support?

Paul Pellizzari, Vice President of Global Social Responsibility at Hard Rock International, added that it’s also important to be upfront with your nonprofit partners on the level of storytelling you’re aiming to achieve.

“Whether you go with them or not, being compelled by what they do report, and their investment in it long-term. That’s more the approach that we’re taking,” Paul said.

He advised other corporate philanthropy leaders to consider the best outcomes early on and build them in when co-developing a program with their nonprofit partner.

For example, Hard Rock International has partnered with the Florida Council for Compulsive Gambling since 1990. Paul said they launched an initiative to promote an 1800 helpline for those struggling with a gambling addiction and demonstrated the promotion led to an increase in calls by 10% in a year.

“How do we bring together what we do well and what you do well? We try to again achieve that same kind of outcome. So build on that if you’re doing a co-develop program.”

Paul Pellizzari, Hard Rock International

Offer Support to Your Partners

Obviously, your nonprofit partners are an essential element in measuring your social impact programs. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that they might need some help producing the metrics you’re looking for.

Karem said there’s a lot of discussion in the industry around being cautious about asking too much of your nonprofit, particularly for small organizations.

This is something the Motorola Solutions Foundation is cognizant of, and as a result, grantees are permitted to use a portion of their funds, when needed, to help them develop impacting reporting.

Karem called this strategy a “win-win for both parties.”

Ali echoed this statement and shared that the MassMutual Foundation also has grant guidelines that highlight the importance of storytelling and encourage those who need assistance to include that information within their funding request.

Some Programs are Easier to Measure Than Others

While the team has employed helpful tactics, Karem shared that it’s still a challenge to tell a cohesive story when the program reaches its conclusion. They know their impact at the individual level, but she said, “What we don’t do a great job of is pulling that all together and being able to provide that broader metric.”

This goes back to the unique goals of each program and nonprofit group — something like mental help support will always be difficult to measure.

“How do you report success on a program that is intended to provide mental health support for a specific group of people?” Karem asked.

Benchmark Strategies with Other Corporate CSR Leaders

Karem said impact measurement is one area of corporate philanthropy where every company takes a slightly different approach, and that’s okay. It’s also an area where corporate philanthropy leaders can really learn from one another.

Benchmark your strategies for impact measurement, grant cycles, nonprofit partnerships, and more in the ESG & CSR Board — the confidential membership community for social impact, ESG, and sustainability leaders at billion-dollar companies.

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