How Should We Measure the Impact of Philanthropy that Supports Community-led Change?

This article is part of a series of articles about Community-Led Philanthropy, co-hosted by GlobalGiving. The conversation explores the ways philanthropy can support community-led change.

The pressure to provide evidence of social impact has grown steadily and relentlessly in the philanthropic sector. And while the practice of reporting on outcomes has become widespread, there are growing concerns and mounting evidence that popular impact measurement frameworks are not capturing the true impact of social change initiatives nor the ways in which social change is achieved. Advocates for community-led change are exploring alternative impact measurement models and missing measures to facilitate learning and improvement.

Nonprofit scholars and practitioners have long raised concerns about social impact measurement approaches and practices. Their studies and stories reveal the disproportionate influence donors tend to have on social impact measurement. Meanwhile, these measurement practices contribute to mission drift and goal displacement, as nonprofits focus on collecting evidence of transactional changes, which may be easier to measure but often serve to protect the status quo. Measuring transformational change is more complex and requires nonprofits to confront power dynamics and systemic issues. 

There are also aspects of the social change process that scholars and practitioners find to be undervalued or missing altogether from impact measurement frameworks. Things like relationships, trust, dignity, and ownership in the helping process. Many attribute this problem to the sector’s use of log frames, or logic models, which assume that change is linear, and outcomes can be predetermined. Some point to the preference for quantitative measures and devaluing of qualitative approaches that allow for emergence. Others point to how evaluation focuses on programs, policies, or interventions rather than the people or communities[1].

Philanthropists sincerely committed to community-led change will need to ensure that their social impact measures and methods align with the values of community-led change.

Today, alongside efforts to #ShiftThePower and decolonize philanthropy, there are growing calls to design alternative evaluation frameworks and measure what matters[2]. For funders that claim to support community-led change, their social impact measurement practices ought to reflect the values of community-led change. So, what are these values?

In 2020, amid a spreading global pandemic and shrinking civic space, the Global Fund for Community Foundations and GlobalGiving partnered with Solidarity Foundation (India), FASOL (Mexico), Tewa Women’s Fund (Nepal), CAF Russia, Truc Nguyen (Vietnam), and the Zambian Governance Foundation to understand community-led development from the perspective of community members and leaders. Their insights are captured in this report and self-assessment tool, which stress the connection between process and impact when it comes to community-led change.

As we learned from community leaders from different parts of the world, when communities realize their collective capabilities and agency and come together to make decisions and take actions, they enable community-led change. What communities end up doing often matters less than the fact that they are accomplishing something together, building relationships along the way. In this way, the process of engaging in community-led change helps communities feel a sense of ownership over the decisions and changes resulting from their own efforts. In a similar manner, donors can align their approaches to measuring the impact of their support to community-led change initiatives.

To begin, funders can start by considering whether and how their own processes and procedures enable or inhibit community-led change. The community-led self-assessment tool can be used by donors to facilitate reflection on their processes and relationships with grantees. The tool prompts users to define their community and acknowledge power imbalances within their community. It also invites self-evaluation on nine characteristics deemed essential to achieving community-led change as well as other characteristics that may be important, depending on the context. Funders are encouraged to share their self-assessment with grantees in an effort to build trust and foster dialogue for ongoing learning and improvement.

Philanthropists sincerely committed to community-led change will need to ensure that their social impact measures and methods align with the values of community-led change. The good news is that there are evaluation frameworks and approaches that do align with the values of community-led change, though they tend to be less well known. In the meantime, there is a need to build understanding about what funders can do to facilitate community-led change, including adopting evaluation frameworks that build community solidarity and agency[3].

Dana R.H. Doan is currently a doctoral candidate at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy focusing on social impact measurement and constituent experiences of nonprofit encounters. She has led, advised, and conducted research with nonprofit and community-based organisations in the U.S., Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

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