The Audience Agency, with partners Social Value UK and Mandy Barnett Associates, brought together representatives from over 40 cultural organisations to discuss how to measure social impact.

November 20, 2019

The making and measuring of social impact is an issue of great interest to The Audience Agency; whilst we are proud of the ability of Audience Finder to take a snap-shot of the nations’ audiences we know that it’s only a piece of the evaluative jigsaw, when it comes to measuring social impact. Crucially, we recognise the need to conduct sensitive qualitative research to get a better personal picture of audience identities, where quantitative approaches wouldn’t be so useful or appropriate.

The 'Making and Measuring Social Impact' event drew a wide range of organisations, including Mind The Gap, National Theatre of Scotland, The Lowry, Nesta and others, who came together to share good practice and unpick some of the thorny issues they were facing in measuring impact - and a number of pertinent questions emerged from discussions.

We're starting to work a lot more closely with our colleagues at Social Value UK, so look out for lots more (and meatier!) content on this topic soon. But, for now, here are a few thoughts that our diversity lead, Maya Sharma, had on the day:

What actually do we mean by measuring social value?

Laura Yates, Acting Head of Participation at Bluecoat, Liverpool's Centre for Contemporary Art, talked frankly:

"'Social impact' isn’t a term I use every day, but in practice it's something I actually do daily."

For her, there are multiple approaches that can be taken, the key is choosing the right method for participants. For example, Most Significant Change proved a useful methodology in measuring the social impact of their work with people with dementia, whereas Five Creative Habits of Mind worked well in evaluating their work with less engaged young people.

Catherine Manning of Social Value UK also referred to a potentially confusing context with many different models and approaches (not least Social Return On Investment) available. SVUK has cut through this and arrived at ten impact questions which sit at the heart of measuring social impact. Take a look at these questions here – you may well find that you’ve been applying them in your evaluative approaches all along. Measuring social impact isn’t necessarily a complicated and technical business, more about attitude, ethos, and asking the right questions.

How can we choose the right tool for measuring social impact?

Many delegates shared a confusion about how to adopt the correct tool, given the plethora of options available. Laura Yates, of Bluecoat, explained that for them it was all about using the best tool for the people they were evaluating with. So for their work with people with dementia, for example, they found Most Significant Change a great tool as it allowed them to involve a whole range of people in describing the changes that had happened through the project, whereas Five Creative Habits of Mind was a much better approach.

How can we measure the impact of small and specific pieces of work, whilst creating a holistic story of the impact we make?

Nicki Locke (British Council) shared some insight on this issue, through talking about her experiences of working on an international programme covering Kenya, Colombia and Vietnam. She talked about the challenges of evaluating well-being, when the concept itself differs from country to country. No easy answers but for her the key lay in letting local people lead in describing what well-being looked like. British Council, then, took responsibility for finding the common ground for each expression of “increased well-being” and tying it up in a coherent evaluation framework. (For more about applying the principles of international work to local activities see my blog).

How can we measure social impact well, when our resources are so limited?

There is no magic wand, but Diane Dever’s honest account of moving from no evaluation to using Culture Cubed (a tool developed by Mandy Barnett Associates) was reassuring. She described how her organisation, Folkestone Fringe (made up of 4 part-time staff and funding only by project funding) managed to get to grips with a Theory of Change approach for their festival work. They made the process of developing a Theory of Change framework work for them by making it lively, interactive, visual and creative (“Don’t start with a spreadsheet!”). They first developed a dense and detailed framework then, through a process of stepping away and then back again, managed to simplify this to much simpler “living” document. They now use this at the start of programming, using impact and outcomes as programming goals as well as evaluation tools.

The day covered far more than we can capture here, and what was made very clear - through the long waiting list and expressions of interest from other countries – is that there is a clear need for more space to share good practice and insight as well as discussing challenges in this work. We hope this event will be the first in a series. If you are interested in joining future conversations please let us know (which email address?).

Going forward

It was useful to share challenges and hear others say that measuring social impact can be messy, complicated and difficult. At The Audience Agency we are excited by the role the Centre for Cultural Value can play in helping practitioners navigate the various resources and tools that exist, so do sign up to the mailing list for updates .

Please let us know if you are interested in continuing the conversation with is about measuring social impact.

Read more on this topic in our recent Arts Professional article: Can you quantify class?

Featured in the November edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.