Measuring Social Change: Challenges, Trends & New Approaches (to better decision making)

October 27, 2016 

Workshop Summary

In 2015, the transition from the MDGs toward the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) represented a widely-noted moment of reflection for the development community. Progress toward many of the goals was impressive, however country-level variation, as well as widespread challenges in a handful of areas, has led to a process of re-evaluating the way that development interventions are planned, funded, delivered, and coordinated. Never before has performance evaluation in international development been of greater interest.

Given its unique position at the nexus of business and the development sector, the Devonshire Initiative took up this theme of results measurement (or, ‘measuring social change’) in an October 2016 workshop, held in Toronto. Throughout the workshop, the presentations, learning, and discussions, were focused around a series of core themes and questions:

  • If as organizations we want our efforts and operations to make social change, and positively so, how do we measure the change needed to achieve our objectives and lead to better decisions?
  • Where are we going in the field of social impact measurement? What’s working at an organizational level? What’s not? What are the challenges and how can it improve?
  • How does measuring social change to an organizational mission differ from measurement in communities where we work?
  • How do we move beyond measuring outputs to measuring impact in order to move beyond measuring for reporting/control requirements to influencing decision making?
  • How can we turn monitoring and evaluation into something that shapes strategy, drives programmatic decisions, fosters innovation and collaboration?
  • What are the new methodologies/approaches for M&E? What are the new tools? Where are the trends headed to support better M&E?

In the measurement of development outcomes, a number of common methodologies, techniques, and practices have emerged. Yet at the same time, depending on one’s organization, there are apparent variations in the approach toward measuring social change, particularly between the approaches taken by businesses and NGOs. Furthermore, across the entire field of development evaluation, new technologies are causing significant disruption as well as creating opportunities previously too complex, costly, or time intensive. The first panel of the workshop explored these common features and unique perspectives.

While participatory approaches to program design and monitoring have been around since the 1990s , it is only in the last decade or so that development evaluations have received widespread attention regarding best (or better) practices for integrating community-based and participatory approaches. The second panel shared different perspectives on some of the latest trends in community- and participatory approaches to development evaluation. Importantly, both examples serve to highlight the growing role of technology, notably the ubiquity of social media and cellular telephones, in supporting greater local engagement in the measurement of social change.

Participants at the workshop represented a diverse range of organizational affiliations and professional experience, which offered a unique opportunity to explore different perspectives on the challenges, current trends, and future directions of measuring social change. In order to tap into these various perspectives, the workshop opened, and later concluded, with small-group breakout sessions. Participants were invited to reflect on a series of specific questions and issues, from which a number of forward-looking insights and observations emerged.