Sub-theme 71: Social Impact Evaluation: The Technical and Sociopolitical Challenges of Accountability

Alnoor Ebrahim
Tufts University, USA
Karen Maas
Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Jonatan Pinkse
University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Addressing the twenty-first century’s grand societal challenges – such as poverty, climate change, health epidemics, educational access, and natural and human-caused disasters – will require an ability to measure and deliver social impact. Policy makers, civil society, and businesses are increasingly concerned with how to hold organizations accountable for their social impact. Whether an organization operates within the not-for-profit, for-profit, or public sectors, or in emerging hybrid spaces that cut across these sectors, evaluations of social impact are a way to both judge the legitimacy of an organization within society and to monitor and improve social performance. However, social impact is both an ambiguous and contested concept (Choi & Majumdar, 2014; Mair & Martí, 2006; Paton, 2003). Neither theory nor practice has been able to establish a unit of measurement or common convention by which social impact can be measured (Kroeger & Weber, 2014; Nicholls, 2009). Furthermore, a theory-practice gap has arisen where many social impact evaluation regimes are criticized as being ultimately immeasurable, irrelevant, imprudent, or incomplete (Molecke & Pinkse, 2017). A central challenge in measuring social impact is that it is not merely a technical endeavor but also a sociopolitical one. What matters to one actor or stakeholder may differ substantially from what matters to another, leading to the challenge of diverse and sometimes conflicting demands for accountability (Ebrahim, 2003).
At an organizational level, managers find it useful and important to assess their social impact for two main reasons. First, if an organization’s social impact fails to meet the expectations of its diverse stakeholder audiences, it can lead to a loss of legitimacy, which can threaten sales or funding, access to markets, and increased regulation, while also impairing their ability to grow and scale (Smith et al., 2013). Second, organizations may find it useful to assess their social impact to monitor the achievement of their social goals and improve their business models. In comparing actual to desired social outcomes, organizations may be able to identify performance gaps and potential remedies as a means to improve their overall social performance, avoid mission drift (Ebrahim et al., 2014), and identify new innovations that bring about novel ways to improve the condition of individuals, communities or the planet (Liket & Maas, 2015; Maas & Grieco, 2017).
Despite the challenges of evaluating social impact, recent literature has recognized a proliferation of alternative, yet complementary approaches to assess social impact. The goal of the proposed sub-theme is to facilitate a conversation on social impact to: (a) compare methods and approaches to social impact measurement, monitoring, and evaluation; (b) analyze the socially constructed aspects of impact measurement and social worth, and its implications for organizational legitimacy and power among diverse stakeholders; (c) examine various levels of analysis relevant to social impact measurement such as a project, program, organization, institution, and society; (d) encourage novel and insightful empirical research and theory-building on social impact measurement; and (e) address the research-practice gap between theories of social impact and real-world managerial problems.
The following questions are indicative of our concerns but not meant to limit other approaches to the topic:

  • What does ‘social impact’ look like and what gives it meaning? What forms of impact are currently best understood, most widely practiced, or convergent and where is it most often unrecognized, contested, ambiguous or divergent?

  • How do we address the methodological challenges and limitations in current social impact evaluations and bridge the practice-theory gap?

  • What happens when social impact evaluations cannot or do not meet the needs or expectations of organizations or their stakeholders? How do individuals or organizations negotiate meaningful evaluations?

  • What institution-level developments are currently under way for establishing norms and regimes for impact measurement? What is the “dark side” or potential negative consequences of such normative convergence?

  • What tensions intersect with the practice of evaluating social impact? What role do social impact evaluations play in navigating tensions and, conversely, how do these tensions impact social impact evaluations?

  • What role do social impact evaluations have in organizational reputation, legitimacy, and resource acquisition? How is the marketization and professionalization of the third sector changing social impact accounts and performance assessment?

  • What is the broader role of social impact as a construct to structure political, civil, and relational roles and systems which address societies social needs? What role does social impact evaluation play in democratic accountability and civil and global governance?

Given the emerging and multi-disciplinary nature of this topic we are open to a range of different methodologies (e.g. qualitative or quantitative analysis, experimental studies, mixed-method approaches, ethnographic and historical methods) and disciplinary backgrounds including (social) entrepreneurship, economics, philanthropy, development studies, (critical) accountancy, anthropology, political science, organizational studies and sociology.


  • Choi, N., & Majumdar, S. (2014): “Social entrepreneurship as an essentially contested concept: Opening a new avenue for systematic future research.” Journal of Business Venturing, 29 (3), 363–376.
  • Ebrahim, A. (2003): “Accountability in practice: Mechanisms for NGOs.” World Development, 31, 813–829.
  • Ebrahim, A., Battilana, J., & Mair, J. (2014): “The governance of social enterprises: Mission drift and accountability challenges in hybrid organizations.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 34, 81–100.
  • Kroeger, A., & Weber, C. (2014): “Developing a conceptual framework for comparing social value creation.” Academy of Management Review, 39 (4), 513–540.
  • Liket, K.C., & Maas, K. (2015): “Nonprofit organizational effectiveness: Analysis of best practices.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44 (2), 268–296.
  • Maas, K., & Grieco, C. (2017): “Distinguishing game changers from boastful charlatans: Which social enterprises measure their impact?” Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, 8 (1), 110–128.
  • Mair, J., & Martí, I. (2006): “Social entrepreneurship research: A source of explanation, prediction, and delight.” Journal of World Business, 41 (1), 36–44.
  • Molecke, G., & Pinkse, J. (2017): “Accountability for social impact: A bricolage perspective on impact measurement in social enterprises.” Journal of Business Venturing, 32 (5), 550–568.
  • Nicholls, A. (2009): “‘We do good things, don’t we?’: ‘Blended Value Accounting’ in social entrepreneurship.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 34 (6), 755–769.
  • Paton, R. (2003): Managing and Measuring Social Enterprises. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Smith, W.K., Gonin, M., & Besharov, M.L. (2013): “Managing social-business tensions: A review and research agenda for social enterprise.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 23 (3), 407–442.

Alnoor Ebrahim is a Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA. His research examines the challenges of performance measurement, accountability, and governance facing organizations with a social purpose. He also co-chairs an executive program at the Harvard Kennedy School for the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurs. Alnoor previously served on a working group established by the G8 to create global guidelines on measuring social impact, and continues to serve on advisory boards to the Global Impact Investing Network and Acumen. His new book is “Measuring Social Change: Performance & Accountability in a Complex World” (2019).
Karen Maas is Director of the Impact Centre Erasmus (ICE) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She is also Academic Director of the executive CSR courses at the Erasmus School of Accounting & Assurance. Karen conducts research in the field of Impact measurement, Impact Investment and Corporate Social Responsibility. Her work has, among others, been published in ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘Business & Society’, ‘Journal of Social Entrepreneurship’, ‘Journal of Cleaner Production’, and ‘American Journal of Evaluation and World Development’. Karen works with (multi-)national companies, institutional investors and foundations to develop effective impact strategies.
Jonatan Pinkse is a Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK. His research interests focus on corporate sustainability, social and sustainable entrepreneurship, business responses to climate change, and innovation in the field of renewable energy. His work has appeared in various journals including the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Journal of International Business Studies’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Business Venturing’, and ‘Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice’. Jonatan is currently Associate Editor at the journals ‘Business & Society’ and ‘Organization & Environment’.