Social Impact Evaluation in the Arts And Cultural Sector: A Primer

May 2024
By Annie Bares, Emily Harney, Bella Stenvall, Natalia Vartapetova
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Photo by Igor Miske/CC0

While social impact is inherent to the core purpose and activity of many arts and cultural organizations, it is rarely captured in a systematic way and presents a powerful storytelling opportunity, often left untapped. Adopting a social impact framework helps organizations clarify overarching mission and priorities, track impact over time, and demonstrate measurable outcomes to stakeholders, funders, and audiences.

For a while, our sector focussed on economic impact studies that sought to show that arts and culture “mean business.” The tide is now turning: as organizations are coming under increased scrutiny over equity issues, working conditions of staff and artists, and controversial philanthropic relationships, a social impact framework allows arts organizations to meet changing social and political expectations. Social impact measurement and reporting can be a tool for arts organizations to hold themselves accountable in operating equitably, prioritizing positive internal culture, and maintaining strong relationships with their communities.

The funding environment is also shifting in favor of this more holistic approach to impact and impact evaluation, as evidenced in the rise of trust-based philanthropy that emerged in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in response to the burden of restrictive funding conditions and a lack of understanding of individual grantees’ context. Trust-based philanthropy works to foster responsive, adaptive, authentic partnerships in which nonprofits and their constituencies are celebrated as essential contributors to social change. Trust-based giving moves towards holistic evaluation that focuses on long-term impact and emphasizes the value of qualitative data in evaluation.

This context raises the need for a systemic – as well as systematic – approach to social impact measurement in our sector. Over the past year, AEA has developed a framework that can be applied to organizational planning and evaluation, with a focus on holistic, sustainability-driven social outcomes. We have supported client organizations with the development of social impact evaluation methodology and design and implementation of associated data collection and analysis. We have also been investigating the ways social impact can be categorized, measured, and reported in strategic planning, feasibility studies, and business planning in the sector.

In our work, we see that social impact evaluation allows arts and cultural organizations to look both inwards – at the impact they have on staff, volunteers, and suppliers – and outwards, to the impact on audiences and partners. Social impact evaluation encourages accountability and course correction as it seeks to understand whether the intended impact is being delivered, and how. Social impact metrics demonstrate relevant outcomes and longitudinal progress to funders, policy-makers, and the wider community.

While being unique to an individual organization’s mission, values, operating environment, and core activities, social impact evaluation methodology follows a set of common principles, including:

  • Intentionality: Intentionally define and pursue what social impact means for your organization and include social impact evaluation at the onset of any planning activity, in initial strategic planning and program design.
  • Longitudinal measurement: Aim to capture longitudinal outcomes, rather than immediate outputs alone.
  • Stakeholder input and engagement: Consult with stakeholders to inform what gets measured, how it is measured, and engage in consultation throughout the analysis.
  • Evidence-based, with clear impact “boundaries”: Seek to understanding how change is affected; evaluate this through evidence gathered, recognizing positive and negative changes as well as those that are intended and unintended. Determine what information and evidence must be included to give a true and fair picture to draw reasonable conclusions about impact.
  • Transparency: Demonstrate the basis on which the analysis may be considered accurate and honest; show that it will be reported to and discussed with stakeholders.
  • Responsiveness: Pursue optimum social impact based on decision-making that is timely and supported by appropriate accountability and reporting.

As we continue to delve more deeply in social impact evaluation and analysis, we’ll be sharing further insights and case studies from our work – we look forward to continuing the conversation!

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