Measuring impact is one of the most important as well as one of the most difficult aspects of social business. Social and environmental impact has been measured for years, so why is it still so problematic? Why hasn’t anyone created a formula or database that spits out a list of simple metrics based on categories of data? The answer is that impact goes far beyond numbers or anything that can be calculated or inputted into a computer.
Byoearth (How Worms Can Change You Life) is a great example of a social enterprise whose impact cannot merely be measured numerically. I had the opportunity to speak with Violeta, a member of the female co-op that owns and runs one of Byoearth’s vermicomposting plants in the rural community of San Bartolome, Guatemala. When I asked her how working at the vermicomposting plant has changed her life, she told me it is a distraction from the other hardships she has to deal with. She said although it provides a source of income, she does not see it as a job; it is a place where she and her friends can come and work together. In less than a year, Violeta told me, they had built a community and a network of support. In addition, working at the plant gives them hope for the future. The women are currently in the midst of planning multiple projects, including expanding the vermicomposting plant as well as a community-wide bottle recycling program.
Byoearth’s impact could easily be portrayed by the amount of trash turned into fertilizer, the acres of soil restored to health, and the number of local Guatemalans employed. However, it is stories like Violeta’s that depict the true impact of Byoearth. Even in the socially-aware world of impact investing and social enterprise, these types of stories are not always heard. In the current age of technology, business-people have become accustomed to an incredibly fast-paced work environment where information is reduced to twitter-length fragments and e-mails are responded to within seconds. The Mulago Foundation, a well-known social impact focused foundation recently published a guide to thinking about impact. Their advice focuses on concise messaging, carefully chosen indicators, accurate numbers, impact-related data, and honest cost calculations. Although these are all incredibly important aspects of measuring impact, it is important to realize that numbers do not show the whole picture.
Personal antectodes are what truly matter in the world of social business. They add a humanistic element to a topic generally depicted solely by numbers and help forge an intimate attachment to the matter. Just because these stories make impact much more difficult to measure does not mean they should be ignored. We must take a step back from our fast-paced lives, accept the fact that social and environmental impact cannot be measured by a simple spreadsheet, and listen to the stories of women like Violeta that depict the true impact created by social enterprise.