Which feedback is more important in social impact: Quantitative or Qualitative?


Quant vs Qual

Impact is both tangible and intangible. The efforts you make cause influence that is seen and unseen. For this reason, impact measurement is evolving despite the fact that it’s not easy to capture the full impact social entrepreneurship has on communities.

The field of impact measurement does not yet have an official standard, instead it has a collection of initiatives and measurement frameworks. Commonly used frameworks include initiatives such as IRIS or BIA. These frameworks can be a great guide for starting impact measurement. Social entrepreneurs may want to change what they measure to better reflect their specific initiative.

If you were to look at your impact, what would you count as an initiative’s influence?

Quantitative vs Qualitative

Projects, research, and practically any other work needing examination or evaluation requires feedback. You need this to understand what influence you currently have, as well as understanding if there is anything to change. Without feedback, your social enterprise may find it hard to scale your positive impact. Feedback, and some of the invaluable insights that can be found in feedback, naturally becomes a priority for any growing endeavor.

Not all insight is the same. Feedback typically comes in two forms: quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative feedback focuses on numbers and standardized metrics. This feedback allows you to see the solid data of work you directly put in and directly received as a result. Examples of quantitative data include number of meals served, test scores, or unemployment rate.

Qualitative feedback focuses on experience, interpretation, and perception. This feedback allows you to uncover reasoning and opinions. Examples of qualitative data include what someone likes to eat, someone describing the hardest question on a test, or why someone is unemployed.

The Quantitative and Qualitative Sides of Social Impact

Some fields of work value one set of insights over another. There may be a construction site that cares more about counting their inventory than understanding the dynamics of the family using the home they build. Granted, the inventory is more closely related to their line of work, so no one expects construction workers to wonder much about family dynamics.

The reason the two are so important in social impact is that social entrepreneurs work closely with the tangible and intangible aspects of impact. If an initiative is creating an affordable housing project, they are

In the Kresge report we covered, the featured story Memphis Medical District Investment Fund mentions their 757 Court  housing project of a 3-story mixed-use property with 49 residential one-bedrooms to bring more college students into the district. Affordable housing near college can be difficult to find for students, but they are some of the people who need access to the Memphis area the most. This effort is part of a larger picture of increasing the economic activity and quality of life in the surrounding area.

Compare that to the Somerset Brownstones housing project in Newark, NJ supported by The Michaels Organization. The project is four buildings where each 3-story building has 15 units and include 60 apartments (40 two bedroom, 20 three bedroom, and 15 units reserved for permanent homeless housing and veterans). Families and natives tend to get pushed out of neighborhoods as areas are developed, which can make settling down complicated. The Somerset Brownstones is actually part of a two-phase project meant to revitalize the neighborhood and bring new families to the community.

In the two examples above, each project is built with a specific experience and stakeholder in mind. The teams collaborating for these projects think of quantitative elements like inventory while also being extremely driven by the qualitative elements like lived experience.

Metric vs Ripple

Since your social enterprise will engage the quantitative and qualitative side of social impact, you’ll start to notice the influence of the initiative also exists in that spectrum of tangible and intangible. What you have now is a balance between the metrics outlining social impact and the ripples continuing the impact.

A metric in social impact relates to quantitative feedback. This goes back to reviewing exact numbers. You could give amounts, rates, percentages, and any other numerical data to show the influence created by your social impact. These numbers are important as they help initiatives show and compare their progress. Such numbers are solid results that your team and collaborators were able to accomplish.

A ripple in social impact relates to qualitative feedback. This highlights the experiences and perceptions that happen alongside or in the aftermath of an initiative’s efforts. Ripples can show up as a stakeholder having a direct opinion of a social impact solution, or it can show up as a change in the stakeholders life.

Sometimes, ripples can have undesirable consequences in unseen ways. In the book Impact & Excellence by Sheri Chaney Jones of Measurement Resources Company, there are reflections on initiatives adopting data-driven cultures for impact measurement. An example of an undesirable ripple can be found in “Two Organizations Embrace a Measurement Culture: A Case Study.” A program meant to positively impact at-risk youth missed a qualitative insight that caused an adverse ripple. The initiative engaged and gathered at-risk youth without acknowledging the difference between the experiences of the youth, such as first-time offenders and repeat offenders. An unseen ripple of blending the two experiences became the first-time offenders being negatively influenced by repeat offenders:

“In another case, evaluation data revealed that one program was unintentionally harming the very children it sought to serve. The program introduced lower-risk juveniles to negative peers whom these first-time offenders might not otherwise have encountered. Shockingly, program leaders discovered that this court-ordered program was actually doing damage rather than improving the situation.”

Most ripples within social impact are desirable. For example, a social enterprise focused on job training may notice stakeholders experience an increase in confidence during the program, which leads some participants to excel in other parts of their life. Looking at countable results/ metrics and looking at the ripple from those impacts is the way social impact can track and capture a fuller picture of an initiative’s influence.

What ways can we view impact?

Social enterprises do their best to monitor the impact they collaboratively bring to communities and networks of stakeholders. This may open conversations to questions such as: Where is the actual impact? What carries the impact? How much impact happens in the metric and how much in the ripple? Which feedback is more important in social impact: Quantitative vs Qualitative?

The answer may vary from initiative to initiative, but the common thread is that tangible and intangible feedback are both important in social entrepreneurship. Both elements make up the overall impact and serve as evidence of influence.

Quant vs Qual
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