How we measure success

by SF Team, 22 September 2015

As we go through our most recent application round, we are struck again by the question many applicants ask: How do you measure success?

Applicants, and sometimes even Fellows, find it difficult to compute the broad question “what do YOU want to do?”. They keep looking for guidance to narrow down the scope of possibility and fit within prescribed parameters. Yes, we want open and innovative, we like technology and we get excited about access. Other than that, and even beyond that, we want applicants to tell us what they want to do, not the other way round.

In order to decide what it is you want to do, you need to know what you want to achieve and in order to know if you are on the right path, you need to know how you will measure success. We believe this is different in each and every case. When dealing with social change, shifting the way people perceive and engage with the world around them, the most each of us can hope to do is to make a contribution to that change. Almost never does measuring this contribution conform to the simplistic single cause and effect paradigm.

Measuring your contribution to change - your impact - is hard. It is complicated, complex, does not adhere to your implementation timelines and often extends way beyond your control. While many models for measuring impact exist, in truth most of them only evaluate implementation. On top of that they are tailored to specific types of projects. We support a wide range of for-profit and not-for-profit implementation and experimentation models. No single success matrix can be applied across the board.

Over time we have also learnt:

Numbers show how many, not how much. There is a tendency to gravitate towards quantifiable metrics, the things that are easy to measure rather than those that are truer. How many users? How many beneficiaries? How much investment? These may be useful measures of interest, but they do not give you much information on the depth and sustained impact you are having on your intended market. ‘How many’ helps quantify potential for success, it is not success in itself.

Price does not mean value. A large cash injection by an investor means someone is making a bet on the possibility of making money from your company in future. It is no guarantee of future income or sustainability. Nor is it a measure of any value you are adding (or offering) to your industry or your clients. There may be potential in your idea, either as a going-concern or a competitive threat, but this form of validation is much more of an indication of the expectations of others than a measure of your progress towards your intended goal.

Journalists are not your target beneficiaries. News coverage, public accolades and social enterprise awards are all great ways of getting your message out, but to what end? The risk here is that you spend all of your time meeting the criteria of selection committees and award judges, but miss the connection to your target audience completely.

What does that mean for how we, and our Fellows, measure success now and impact in the future? At the highest level, success, for us, in the context of our fellowship programme, is:

  • We know more at the end of a fellowship than we did in the beginning, through experimentation and iteration.

  • That knowledge is available to others to learn from and build upon.

  • The individual Fellow goes on to influence positive social change in their field way beyond the duration of the fellowship.

Within this context, we work with Fellows to define their own success, for the fellowship year and for their big picture change in the world. If some of the ideas we explore together result in a new norm, that would be the cherry on top.

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