On Social Impact Measurement

I’m reading an article “Accountability for Social impact: A Bricolage Perspective on Impact Measurement in Social Enterprises” 2019.

They start off citing a problematic ambiguity when it comes to social impact measurement:

An underlying reason for this ambiguity is that, in contrast to accounting conventions for financial performance assessment, there are no generally agreed-upon methodologies or units for social impact measurement.

Because of the unique influences that social enterprises encounter that are different from for profit enterprises i.e., social enterprises tend to enter less valued markets, have multiple stakeholders with differing viewpoints, and the overall impression that for profit return on investment methodologies don’t transfer well to this sector.

As a result the authors contend that many social entrepreneurs use ‘bricolage’ for social impact measurement. “The concept of bricolage refers to making do with at hand resources.” In this case what it means is that social entrepreneurs make space for new ideas about what social impact means within their specific context.

In this article the standard Logic Model of measuring impact is criticized for its emphasis on linear causality between inputs-outputs-outcomes-impact.

In contrast, practitioners with experience in implementing such formal methodologies often stress the causal ambiguity of this chain; they contend that impacts are difficult to understand with precision, mush less calculate … Social enterprises operate in an ecosystem, including other social enterprises, businesses, and aid organizations, each of which may contribute to or interact with each other’s impacts. Attributing impact to a specific actor can thus be very difficult.

The point they make here is that outputs can be controlled by the organization and can thus be measured, while outcomes and impacts are more difficult to isolate and account for. Friction between stakeholders in an enterprise may arise, the authors state due to disagreements as to how to, “translate rich, experiential information into simple, parsimonious measures of social impact.”

There is a trade-off in social impact measurement between creating accounts that capture the experiential richness, variance, and flexibility of social entrepreneurs’ interpretations and accounts that are easily transferable and interpretable for funders.

Social entrepreneurs’ evaluation of impact has a vast experiential element to it – their daily experiences provide them with rich contextual information. Yet, much of this experience and context can be difficult to convey to other stakeholders

Their findings from 23 interviews, 1 hour in length (pg. 16)

  • while social entrepreneurs were exposed to, and had sometimes attempted to some degree, many of the formal methodologies to measure social impact, social entrepreneurs almost never committed entirely to a specific methodology. Instead, social impact measurement was frequently more akin to a patchwork combination of elements from multiple methodologies.
  • Extant methodologies (e.g. SROI, logic models, or experimental methods) were essentially unused among social entrepreneurs in the small-to medium sized enterprises that we interviewed. Only two of the twenty-two enterprises systematically used a formal methodology to understand their social impact.
  • social entrepreneurs avoided existing methodologies. Instead, they frequently resorted to creating improvised collections of simple, ad hoc, self-generated methods, bricolaged together from at-hand data, experiential anecdotes, insights collected through encountered academic articles and collective industry wisdom from industry players
  • For those who searched heavily for impact measurement resources, the issue was never that they could not discover the existence of these methods; it was that they often did not have sufficient support and resources to implement them. Thus, even for those who actively sought out existing methodologies, these served as inspiration but were never formally implemented.

For the emerging social entrepreneur, having impact was essential, but demonstrating impact was viewed as a burden on their time and resources. Social entrepreneurs instead focused more on providing details of impact as economically as possible to avoid distracting themselves from their goal of creating impact in the first place. As one entrepreneur stated:

One of the challenges as a startup social enterprise is that, it’s not like we
have a huge budget to invest in doing research. That’s not our job. And so
any research and data collection that we do has to be incorporated into our
regular course of doing business.

One of the challenges of being a social enterprise or social business is that first and foremost, we have to make sure that the business is working and that we’re going to survive and that we’re going to be able to continue operating. Figuring out how to measure impact, and when, is a secondary priority.

Key Point

Overall, we found that social entrepreneurs were not deciding upon an existing method and
then attempted to collect the relevant data necessary to implement that method. Instead, they started with the data they have at hand and bricolaged it together into thematic bundles to see what kind of ideas regarding impact might arise.

For most social enterprises in our sample, however, much of the funding came from funders with whom they could exert some interpretive flexibility regarding what types of impact measurements to use.

By giving richer narratives a place in social impact measurement, ideational bricolage
helped the social entrepreneurs blend their interpretations and priorities into the trend toward social impact measurement being more objective and evidence-based (see third contribution below). pg 32

We found a pattern whereby social enterprises demonstrated their social impact through ad-hoc combinations of at-hand operational, design, and sales data; experiential anecdotes; retained highlights of academic research that they encountered; emotionally resonant images, videos, and other ‘bric-a-brac remains’ (Douglas, 1986: 67) of commonly accepted wisdom and assertions. Social entrepreneurs strategically chose which ideas about impact to include. For example, a social enterprise that focused on the deep impact of providing homes avoided defining impact in terms of scale.

Delegitimization: 4 insights into the problem of formal impact measurement

Delegitimization provides the interpretive flexibility needed to avoid simply accepting a formal methodology wholesale and instead demand that social entrepreneurs and funders search through the individual elements – the data and ideas – that the methodology has put together to see where the problem lies and bricolage a solution.

Delegitimization atomizes the data and ideas within an integrated formal impact measurement system, breaking them free from their roles within the delegitimized methodology for use as elements to be bricolaged together, along with all the other at hand data and ideas about impact that never made it into the delegitimized methodology to begin with. The refusal to be limited by formal methodologies leads the entrepreneurs to critically enact their resource environment and thus potentially create something from nothing (Baker & Nelson, 2005).


Bricolage represents such blending, as it shows how social entrepreneurs take whatever they can from a formal methodology and see how it might be combined with other data and ideas into a new construction of social impact. Social entrepreneurs using bricolage use the same data and ideas that formal methodologies use (to the extent that they are at-hand), but instead of placing these in a causal chain, they simply create a collection of facts that are left for stakeholders to interpret. The data is positioned together but the overarching causal relationships are stripped away or left implicit. This switch from borrowing to blending counterbalances discussions how the imported ideas are similar and appropriate (‘i.e. of one-way borrowing based on analogical resonance’) with discussions how they are dissimilar and do not fit (i.e. ‘two-way blending based on analogical dissonance’) (Oswick et al., 2011: 318). The social entrepreneurs’ delegitimization critiques serve to create this dissonance and thus become the mechanisms to assist their interpretive flexibility.

Randy Terada
Centre for Social Innovation Annex
720 Bathurst St.

© Randall Terada 2023 • website created by frances may design