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Diving Deeper into “Deciding What ‘Works’”

Demonstrating impact is still one of the most elusive challenges facing social enterprises today.  Even with the increased focus on accountability and measurement that we’re seeing in the social sector, the debate continues on the best – and most efficient – way to measure the real difference these enterprises are making in the world.

The randomized control trial (RCT) has long stood as the “gold standard” for proving social and environmental impact.  But is it really our best option?  Steve Goldberg – author of Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets: Why Philanthropy Doesn’t Advance Social Progress – has illuminated many of the fundamental problems with this “purist” approach to evaluation. That’s why we believe his blog post, “Deciding What ‘Works,’” is a must-read.

Aside from the exorbitant cost of RCTs, Goldberg makes a strong  case for why this method does not hold water as the exemplar of measurement in the evolving social enterprise sector. He also points towards several reasons why RCTs may not be as methodologically compelling as they have been previously touted in the past.

We believe Steve’s article is important because it illuminates (and rightfully disagrees with) the conception that program evaluations should be carried out “after-the-fact,” and always demand the most exhaustive level of methodological scrutiny, which can often be crippling to organizations.

This is not to say Acumen Fund doesn’t insist on tracking metrics, and doing so meticulously.  And we have given one or two RCTs a shot.   Metrics, and thinking about impact, are some of the most important drivers of our work, and we invite you to learn more on our approach by browsing the investment portion of our website and reading a piece I wrote a few years ago, “Simple Measure for Social Enterprise”.

Brian Trelstad is Chief Investment Officer at Acumen Fund.

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