How You Collaborate Will Shape The Impact You Have (Part 3 Of 4)

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In this space the primary reason people come together to collaborate is to have a positive social impact and this was readily apparent in our interviews with over 25 innovative philanthropic and socially-minded organizations as part of our series on 21st Century Collaboration.

Assuring Impact

Nearly everyone we spoke with recognized the importance of defining and measuring impact. Most struggle to do that well and none profess to have it figured out. Most importantly, we heard that leaning into that struggle is what yields powerful fuel for collaboration.

Evaluating progress is vital, but it doesn’t have to be an RCT, and sometimes it shouldn’t be.

You might expect more mature, data-driven organizations to have established consistent, replicable frameworks for impact measurement. While undeniable progress in specific program areas where measurement is easier to implement has been made, gold standards simply don’t exist and the costs inherent in answering seemingly simple questions can quickly become prohibitive. Recognizing how challenging this can be, one organization we spoke with has adopted a more organic approach that favors action and scaling over “ivory tower” measurement, like overdependence on randomized controlled trials for proof of effectiveness. Yet, even in this situation there are mechanisms in place to take stock of progress, extract lessons, and ensure that the right kind of support best helps those who actively develop and apply solutions.

Including grassroots perspectives can reveal innovative approaches and strengthen systems-change efforts.

Another important thing we heard was that incorporating the voice of the ‘end-user’ or beneficiary has become a best practice for developing scalable solutions that have lasting impact. A common technique to foster innovation is to bring in diverse perspectives. A handful of organizations we interviewed praise combining these two ideas—bringing grassroot, community voices into blue-sky solution generation—as the secret to developing creative solutions that result in real, lasting change. Engaging with stakeholders in this way can also aid collaboration by re-center the conversation around the central issues, rather than bureaucratic disputes.

Tackling systemic impact measurement can bring more funders
Some organizations use complex models to measure the systemic impact of their work. For one social impact investing firm, they believe that quantifying and measuring systemic impact will better galvanize their investors. Their model captures systemic, environmental, and social impact in a quantitative way. This requires a deep understanding of the issues at hand and ability to add that nuance to their models. In particular, this organization accounts for the differences in impact when investing in seasoned operators vs. those that are emerging. To do this, their impact model has 30 variables factored into the analysis. These variables examine everything from the impact of funding an intermediary, how capital is additional or strengthening the organization, how investing affects the whole sector, or how well the opportunity fits into their Theory of Change.


  • What are the tradeoffs for how you currently measure impact?
  • Whose voices most influenced how success and impact were defined?
  • As you’ve learned more, have you shifted how you think about achieving or assessing impact?

Debi Blizard is the Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

Zoe True is the Associate Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.