Social impact measurement: playing the role of Philosopher and Detective

Scientist, Storyteller, Philosopher, Detective – Dave Masom explores the many hats you need to put on in order get social impact measurement right.

If you are looking to measure your organisation’s social impact, you’ll have to play a number of roles. The most obvious are what I call the Scientist and the Storyteller. With the former, your job is to collect quantifiable evidence of impact, and with the latter, you must put this information into a narrative that turns cold, hard figures into something that tugs on the heartstrings and inspires action.

The Scientist and the Storyteller are the two basic roles you play, but there are two more roles that are equally important – the Philosopher and the Detective. They are important because they widen the scope and usefulness of social impact measurement.

The Philosopher’s role is to lift your thinking. Thinking about social impact should raise big questions. Questions like ‘Should we work intensively with a few people, or a little with many?’ ‘Should we keep our most popular programme running, even if it is not that impactful?’ and ‘Could someone else do this better than we can?’

Often these questions are raised, but then not really considered further. That’s because they are difficult! It’s difficult to find the answer, and sometimes the implications are scary. It’s the Philosopher’s job to think deeply about these questions and to refine them so they can be answered in a useful way.

The Detective’s role is to step beyond the obvious and to ask a tighter set of questions – ‘Why does this work?’ ‘What works better?’ and ‘How did this happen?’

Whereas the Scientist and the Storyteller are primarily concerned with what impact has been created, the Detective looks at the data with fresh eyes, using it to uncover the reasons for that impact. Often social impact measurement stops at describing activities, outputs and outcomes in separate buckets, without looking closely at precisely what parts of those activities led to specific outcomes.


The Scientist

Collects and analyses data to provide evidence that impact was generated.

The Storyteller

Crafts the narrative in a form that stakeholders find compelling.

The Philosopher

Asks the big questions and brings them from the conceptual to the practical.

The Detective

Investigates the reasons impact was generated to inform future practise.

The four roles of social impact measurement


The questions posed (and hopefully answered) by the Philosopher and the Detective are very useful because they can inform future decisions about how to improve programmes or allocate resources.

In business-speak, the Philosopher might be considered a strategist, ensuring social impact is considered at a ‘big picture’ level and informs strategy and mission. The Detective’s analytical skills unlock additional value in the data you are collecting, and enable continuous improvement.

Here are some practical tips for giving your inner Philosopher and Detective a voice:

  1. Record the big questions, and revisit them. Often these queries come out in water cooler discussions, or in Theory of Change workshops. Define them precisely so they can’t be brushed under the carpet.
  2. Foster a culture of openness. The questions asked by both the Philosopher and the Detective are tough – they allow for the potential answer that we are doing a poor job. Make sure staff understand that the exercise is not about holding people to account, but to uncover ways to improve.
  3. Test hypotheses. Once the questions have been defined, determine what data you would need to answer the questions, and then make a plan to obtain that data.
  4. Build feedback loops. When you find information that answers the questions posed by the Philosopher or the Detective, make sure the implications are thought through and translate to action – for example, make a change to a product, or changing the eligibility criteria for a service.

As I’ve argued before, social impact measurement shows its value when it’s functionally relevant. To be relevant, you have to ask the right questions and then seek out the answers. Embracing your inner Philosopher and Detective will help you do just that.


Photo credit: Lawrence OP