Are We Doing Any Good?

Consider the spectrum of philanthropic giving you or others in your social circle made over the last five years: You may be thinking of gifts to alma maters. Or, you’re thinking of a GoFundMe campaign for someone you knew who had an accident, those soccer team fundraising drives, or an end-of-year large donation to a nonprofit. Maybe you’re thinking of a political moment over the past few years that led you to whip out your wallet first and then figure out where to send the cash. 


One of the most common questions we get from clients is “Are my resources truly having an impact on the change I want to see in the world?” Naturally, no matter the size of the gift, as a giver, you want to know that whatever you’re giving to is making a meaningful difference. Philanthropists, especially those with a business background are used to having straightforward metrics to measure their success (e.g., ROI, net profit). In the realm of driving social change and making a positive impact on society through philanthropy, the metrics can be far less concrete, clear, or direct. 

So why is philanthropy so different?

There are two big reasons measuring change in philanthropy feels so different from other sectors. First, accountability for results of any kind continues to be optional in philanthropy. Donors, in all shapes and sizes, give simply because they want to. In many cases the “return” on such giving is not evaluated in any formal way. Rather, success is often measured by feelings – does it bring the giver joy to give to this cause? Is the recipient happy and grateful? 

Second, even those who do strive for more objective accountability around results struggle with how to measure impact when dealing with complex social problems. These philanthropists find themselves wondering, “Am I actually having an impact?” “How will I know if my resources are driving real, sustainable, and positive change?” These questions are so prevalent among philanthropists that they have driven the development of many online guides and other efforts to assess grantee performance (e.g., GiveWell, Charity Navigator, GuideStar). These tools can be a helpful piece of the puzzle, but still do not provide a comprehensive picture of overall impact. 

At Building Impact, we believe that the ultimate measure of philanthropy’s success is the positive social change it produces – and this can be challenging to measure, especially using traditional methods. For example, we work with many philanthropists who have goals to transform education systems in a particular region to better serve the needs of all kids. Educators use a host of traditional metrics to measure success (e.g., test results, teacher retention, graduation rates), but those alone will not provide the concrete answer to whether in fact the education system is better serving the needs of all kids. Measuring the true success of an effort at instigating systemic change is not easy, given all of the factors that could impact student performance measures, the inability to tie results back directly to increased giving, and the reality that success has not been universally defined in such a context. Measuring impact yield insights that help advance our understanding of the issue and drive how we think about philanthropy and the problem we are hoping to address. That said, doing so is rarely, if ever, straightforward.

What are some ways you can measure the success of social change?

Below are a few strategies we’ve found that help change agents successfully determine whether they are on the right course. In our experience, it is important to recognize that in the same way highly complex issues require sophisticated and customized strategies, so does the challenge of measuring impact in these same fields require a customized approach:

  • Develop your metrics of success with the people whom you are hoping to impact and/or those who are already being impacted by the issues you desire to change. The most powerful and effective philanthropists recognize the limits of their own perspective and work to continually expand their understanding of the world and the problems they are seeking to impact. There’s no better way to do that than to engage directly with those who are impacted by the potential solutions you are funding.
  • Identify those things that ARE easily measurable, determine which are most important, and measure them. These will often be inputs, a measure of effort (e.g. number of students served), or outputs, a measure of what is produced (e.g. test scores, graduation rates, etc.). Taken as part of a whole, these inputs can yield valuable insights.
  • For the things that are harder to measure, consider the conditions that are necessary for the type of social change you want to see to occur. In our work, we often refer to SSIR’s framework for assessing advocacy as a helpful reference point, which is at the heart of most social change work. The basic idea is that if we focus on the conditions that need to be present for the change to be successful – having powerful political champions for change, a mobilized public, and a feasible solution, for example – then we’re more likely to effect that change. One way to measure progress then is determining whether those conditions are present – and working to create them if they are not. 
  • Take the time to develop both near- AND long-term measures. Too many philanthropists settle for near-term grant cycle metrics that don’t leave room for “failing forward” using past challenges to inform future innovation. When you have a long-term plan and are keyed in to measure results over many years, short term setbacks aren’t quite so catastrophic — and may in fact yield crucial insights.

Stop asking “Are we doing any good?” We promise it will help.

We’re so used to asking ourselves, “Are we doing any good?” Instead, we should ask “How can I do better?” This questions is goal-oriented and outcome-minded — just as we want our philanthropy to be. When seeking to harness philanthropy to do its very best in the face of complex social challenges, staying both humble and hopeful is key. We will almost never be satisfied by our first efforts — but if we are committed to learning, coming back and continuously improving our understanding and our giving, we are maximizing our chances of truly doing good in the long run.