Can you Measure Accountability? Reflecting on the Economics of Social Change

Posted on June 23, 2014 by


Where do we find the energy for social change?

How can we measure (objectively!) the value of social change?

I just read a thought provoking post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.  It was penned by Jeremy Nicholls of SROI, under the title “People, Power & Accountability: Measuring Social Impact.”  It sparked some thinking I’d like to discuss at this week’s #smchat on #socialchange, WEDS 1pm ET. Major thanks to Cathryn Hrudicka for teeing it up.

The basic theme of the piece was exploring what’s necessary for social stakeholders (notably, beneficiaries) to form an objective assessment of value delievered by social providers.  The real world can be dauntingly vague. Our ability to identify meaningful measures as discrete standards of value can be a challenge at best. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The article proposes legislation, standards, and audits as possible solutions, asking why solutions for regulated financial markets might not be useful in the social change (heretofore non-profit) space?

At first, it seems a tall order. With no financial imperative like “profit” to guide the NFP ship, we’re left with alternative definitions of success. As the article points out, many of these are ultimately self-serving to those doing the evaluation.

Are we left with opinion (“it must be working”) and emotions (e.g. “feel good”) alone? What choices might we have? What might be steps in the direction of a social accountabilty framework?

Let’s tee a few of them up, to see:

  • Q1. How can social stakeholders measure value? Can there be “profit” in a non-profit space?
  • Q2. Is a universal framework for defining value possible? If so, what might be its elements, some sort of “return”?
  • Q3. The article makes the point that leadership is key, but not enough. What else do leaders need? laws? auditors? 
  • Q4. A “solution language” creates new forms of currency in social exchange. How might these play a role?

I hope you’ll be able to join us WEDS 6/25 1pm ET at hash tag #smchat. Each 4th Friday at this time we are focused on #socialchange .. as we continue to chip away at the many challenges in the space. We’d definitely appreciate your input.

Thanks in advance.  We’ll see you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov