Developments in social impact measurement in the third sector: Scaling up or dumbing down?

Jane Gibbon (Lead / Corresponding author), Colin Dey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Citations (Scopus)


This paper outlines the merits of two approaches to social impact measurement that are currently the subject of debate within the third sector: social accounting and audit (SAA) and social return on investment (SROI). Although there are significant similarities between the methods, a number of important differences remain. In particular, while SAA involves a more ‘conventional’ mix of narrative and quantitative disclosures, SROI outcomes are more explicitly quantitative and reductive. This is most evident in the production of the ‘SROI ratio’, which calculates a monetised ‘return’ on a notional £1 of investment. In the UK, with available resources becoming increasingly scarce, the third sector is facing demands for increased accountability as well as being encouraged to ‘scale up’ in preparation for assuming greater responsibility for public service delivery. In this context, it is easy to see why the simplicity and clarity of SROI is attractive to policy-makers, fundraisers and investors, who are keen to quantify and express social value creation and thus make comparative assessments of social value. However, this apparent simplicity also risks reducing the measurement of social impact to a potentially meaningless or even misleading headline figure and should therefore be treated with caution. This is especially so where exact measures are unobtainable, and approximations, or so-called ‘financial proxies’, are used. The use of such proxies is highly subjective, especially when dealing with ‘softer’ outcomes. There is nothing to prevent SROI being used within an SAA framework: indeed, a greater emphasis on quantitative data could improve many social accounts. Nevertheless, we conclude that current efforts to promote SROI adoption, to the likely detriment of SAA, may ultimately promote a one-dimensional funder- and investor-driven approach to social impact measurement in the third sector.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-72
Number of pages10
JournalSocial and Environmental Accountability Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Accounting


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