We proudly give credit and appreciation to the Common Approach for the images and quotes in this blog to describe the Essential Practices. For a more detailed guide please see the Common Foundations of Impact Measurement Version 2.0.

Andrew Greer

Andrew Greer, Managing Director & Cofounder, Purppl

Impact measurement is having a moment, and we hope it’s here to stay.

Nonprofits and co-ops, who have been doing impact measurement for a long time, are being asked to measure long-term outcomes not short-term outputs. For-profits are under pressure to improve and measure their ESG, or environment, social and governance practices. Funders and investors (and everyone else) are being challenged to decolonize their organizations and demonstrate the impact of their activities. 

Attracting talent, customers, investors and partners increasingly requires we demonstrate how we are creating meaningful social impact and building equitable organizations — not just saying it. Doing so is essential to gaining the social license needed to operate in community.

As the importance and demands around impact measurement increase, what many of us are seeking is a simple, credible impact measurement process. 

What is impact measurement?

Impact measurement is “the qualitative or quantitative assessment of social impact.” For us, social impact is inclusive of cultural, social and environmental impact.  

Impact measurement is “the qualitative or quantitative assessment of social impact.” – Common Approach

The goal of impact measurement is to assess whether your organization’s activities are producing the results you set out for and whether you need to course correct or reallocate resources to achieve your intended impact.

What are the Common Foundations of good impact measurement?

The Common Approach to Impact Measurement has outlined five ‘Essential Practices’ of good impact measurement:

Common Approach logo

  1. Describe your intended change
  2. Use indicators
  3. Collect useful information
  4. Gauge performance and impact
  5. Communicate and use results 

This Canadian-made and globally informed approach shares wise practices but not a prescribed process. The five Essential Practices, together called Common Foundations, are “the pathway to impact measurement. The Common Foundations provide guidance for how to measure impact. They are a minimum standard and social purpose organizations can know when their impact measurement practices are ‘good enough.’”

For those interested, you can take a self-assessment here, and they will follow up with some suggestions on how to improve your practices.

The Common Approach approach balances the flexibility and responsiveness that organizations need to choose relevant, customized measurements, which are usually called indicators, with the uniformity that funders and investors desire so they can gain insights from dissimilar indicators in their portfolio.

Indicators are measurements which show that “a positive social, environmental, cultural or economic outcome is being achieved (or affected, or not).”

What do we like best about The Common Foundations? The practices are simple, logical and described in plain language. They are approachable and able to be implemented by small and large organizations, and there are clear steps for each of the Essential Practices. Also, they’re driven by practitioners, not funders. 

5 essential practices to measure impact

Identified by the Common Approach, the five Essential Practices to measure impact are:

  1. Describe your intended change
  2. Use indicators
  3. Collect useful information
  4. Gauge performance and impact
  5. Communicate and use results

At Purppl, we are big proponents of the Common Approach and especially the Essential Practices. We appreciate the work that has been done by many practitioners, and hope to contribute to the community of knowledge.

1. Describe your intended change

“A description of the intended change is a foundational practice of all impact measurement approaches. The description must specify how and why your work will bring about change. The purpose of the description is to focus your measurement efforts; describe the scope of these efforts, and clarify who should be involved in the process.”

A great tool that can help describe and communicate your intended change is a Theory of Change, or logic model. You can download Purppl’s Theory of Change template here.

Here are the essential practices to describe your intended change:

  1. Describe the change you want to achieve.
  2. Identify the positive results most central to that change.
  3. State the main activities you will undertake.
  4. Describe the process of change.

2. Use indicators

Indicators are the metrics you choose to “help you to assess how well you carried out your work and what effect your work has. A good set of indicators will inform how to create impact and what changes have occurred. Indicators can be qualitative (non-numerical) or quantitative (numerical).” 

Indicators show that positive social, environmental, cultural or economic outcomes are being achieved (or affected, or not).

Here are the essential practices to use indicators:

  1. Think of how you will know that progress and change have happened.
  2. Identify indicators that show progress and change.
  3. Refine indicators so they are time-specific and can be observed or measured.

There are different types and sources of indicators. Indicators can be used for outputs, outcomes and impacts. Wise practice is to focus efforts on measuring indicators for outcomes. Including self-identified indicators and standardized indicators gives you both specificity as well as external validation.

Standardized indicators can help to save time, reduce confusion, and add credibility. There are several well known indicator banks that provide language and data for standardized indicators. Here are a few well known indicator banks: Canadian Index of Wellbeing, Canadian Indicator Framework for the SDGs, IRIS Indicator Catalogue, Global SDG Indicators

3.Collect useful information

“Information collection should not be burdensome for your organization, or for those from whom you are collecting information. It should help you improve your work and demonstrate that you are making progress.” 

There are many considerations involved in collecting information, it’s really important that it’s voluntary and that you are collecting only what you need. Collecting information can happen in surveys, conversations and more. 

Here are the essential practices to collect useful information:

  1. Decide what data you need to collect in order to interpret the change.
  2. Select data-collection methods that will give you the evidence you need.
  3. Have a clear plan for data collection.
  4. Collect data in a routine and consistent way.
  5. Act ethically in collecting data.

4. Gauge performance and impact

Assembling and analyzing this analysis “helps you gain insights about what works and about how well you are doing.” 

Part of doing this well is to actually analyze the information you collect, not just collect it. It’s wise practice to use software, not spreadsheets. Take a look at the software vendors who are aligned with the Common Impact Data Standard (scroll to the bottom). 

Here are the essential practices to gauge performance and impact:

  1. Put a system in place to store and manage data.
  2. Assemble, organize and review your information.
  3. Analyze data.
  4. Review differences and draw conclusions.
  5. Base conclusions about impact on reasonable assumptions. 

5. Communicate and use results

“‘Use’ can mean many things: informing, learning, improving, action. Use the information you collect to produce a balanced account of your work and the difference it makes. Communicate your results in such a way that people understand how you came up with your conclusions.“

What’s essential here is that you actually use the results, not just burden your stakeholders with a bunch of measurement requirements. 

Here are the essential practices to communicate and use results:

  1. Use your impact data, or revise it.
  2. Choose reporting methods and communication styles targeted to the needs of different groups of people affected by your work.
  3. Report on performance and impact regularly.
  4. Produce as balanced an account as possible of your impact. 

Drawbacks about measurement

Measurement, with all its benefits, has drawbacks too.

Measurement tries to reduce everything to numbers; there are things that aren’t or shouldn’t be measured. The practices of measurement are undoubtedly colonized, although there are important Indigenous-led measurement initiatives.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that measurement is not the only way to demonstrate learning and accountability.

Getting started with impact measurement

Getting started can be quite simple: Write down your intended change, identify some metrics to measure progress on the change you want, and report on it. The important part is to get started and then incrementally improve.

Here are examples of a nonprofit and a for-profit measuring and reporting on their impact.

For-profit impact measurement: Nada

Nada is a package-free grocery store on a mission to connect people to just food – championing a community food system by linking buyers to suppliers and offering healthy, unpackaged products & services.

They report on containers diverted from the landfill as well as kilograms of food recovered, which didn’t end up in the landfill.

Nonprofit impact measurement: Dreamrider

Dreamrider works with diverse communities to inspire environmental superheroes of all races, ethnic backgrounds, orientations, gender identities and religions. Their programming reaches through schools and into families to empower everyone as planet protectors.

After experiencing their programs, kids feel energized, happy, and eager to put into practice what they have learned. Dreamrider reports on changes in behaviour related to driving patterns, energy use, and household waste.

Why do we measure impact, and how can Purppl help?

Measurement is here to stay, despite its limitations. Good impact measurement can bring humility, enabling you to see what’s working and what’s not. It can inform better strategy, decision making, and risk mitigation. Impact measurement helps you focus on who is impacted, who is contributing, and who you can work with to improve shared outcomes.

Good measurement can empower you with good stories that attract customers and partners and enable you to participate confidently in advocacy or policy shifts. Measurement can help you demonstrate your values and be a responsible corporate citizen.

Most importantly, measurement can support our collective efforts to contribute to systemic change that upholds collective wellbeing, equity, and the health of air, land and water.

Purppl helps organizations implement and improve their impact measurement, reporting and storytelling.

Whether it’s driven by your mission, a funder, investor, employee or compliance requirement, we can help. Our impact strategy and measurement services help you clarify your intended impact, identify appropriate indicators (metrics), build or refine the essential practices of measurement, and tell data supported stories.

We work alongside nonprofits, co-ops, for-profits, funders, and investors to demonstrate their impact, build accountability to their mission, improve decision making, reduce their risk, and attract team members, customers, investors and partners.

If those priorities align with you, let’s connect and build social impact, together.

Want help with measurement?

Navigating impact measurement strategy, process, reporting and storytelling can be overwhelming. We can help create clarity and simplicity.

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