Taking advantage of strange days: the application of evaluation to social enterprises

August 16, 2013

Social enterprises, especially during their early stages, are often strapped for cash and more concerned with next week than next year. So it’s not surprising that external evaluation can be a low priority, even for those enterprises and entrepreneurs that recognize the power of knowledge.


There is an alternative to outside evaluators, however: The do-it-yourself option. This option isn’t perfect and it isn’t independent, but if thought and effort are put in, then answers can be obtained to questions such as: Do our customers share our views on which aspects of the products and services are most useful? Are the trends that we are seeing a blip or something more?


Arguably the most important aspect of evaluation is being receptive to feedback. A cheap, usually invaluable, but often neglected route, is taking the time to listen to customers and other stakeholders to find out which outcomes they consider to be the most important ones.


Knowledge of which outcomes are the most important is a vital step in analysis, but further insights often rely upon creating, or discovering, metrics to track those outcomes. These don’t have to be complex to be useful. A good example of keep-it-simple is EuroQol 5D, a rating system of patients’ state of health which has a wide acceptance. A very different topic is covered well by Ashoka’s annual survey of its Fellows, which asks: Are you still working towards your original vision? Have others replicated your original idea? Have you had impact on public policy? What position does your institution currently hold in the field?


To avoid reinventing-the-wheel, knowledge on what indicators have been applied is attainable through such databases as Wiki-VOIS. And, once suitable data has been collected, online tools make it increasingly straightforward to answer such statistical questions such as the number of people to ask for views in a survey in order to meet standards of statistical significance.


When undertaking evaluations, tapping into knowledge is crucial. Forming links to universities whose students have dissertations or work-experience projects to be undertaken is worth considering. And it’s worth checking out for public lecture videos or podcasts of interest from the Royal Society of Arts, the LSE and the many other organizations that make the issues considered by academics and the ways they use to assess them visible.


Many entrepreneurs approach evaluation reluctantly, perhaps only because funders want evidence that their money is well spent. That reluctance is understandable, as an entrepreneur has to back their judgment and retain their flair, but it can hamper progress.


The more that activities are informed by feedback, good metrics, and academic findings, the greater the chances of success. And undertaking an evaluation, even to a small extent, brings another advantage – by fulfilling the sense of quest that lies behind the physicist John Wheeler’s quote: "If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day."

Neil Reeder
Neil Reeder

Neil Reeder is director of Head and Heart Economics, a Fellow of the Young Foundation, and a researcher at the London School of Economics.


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