Are foundations assessing their impact? Concepts, methods and barriers to social impact assessment in Italian foundations

  • Elisa RicciutiEmail author
  • Francesca Calò
Original Article


Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is a mantra for nonprofit studies in recent years and for foundations in particular which are considered to be well-positioned to measure the impact of their grants. This paper aims to explore what foundations mean with impact, the ways they measure it and the barriers in performing evaluations. Its mixed method approach includes an extensive documentary analysis of 196 foundations, complemented by 10 in-depth interviews with informants of 13 foundations which use different methods of evaluation. From our analysis, the degree of foundations’ disclosure on SIA is low, and no common meaning of social impact exists. Foundations prefer qualitative methods for data collection rather than quantitative ones. The reasons behind SIA are primarily based on internal considerations concerning foundations’ legitimacy, and the lack of professional staff is a major barrier. The findings challenge foundations’ accountability and knowledge sharing, fundamental to fostering peer dialogue and increasing participatory evaluations.


Social impact Assessment Evaluation Foundations Philanthropy 


  1. Anheier, H.K. & Leat, D., (2006). Creative philanthropy: Toward a new philanthropy for the twenty-first century. Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Anheier, H., & Leat, D. (2013). Philanthropic foundations: What rationales? Social Research, 80(2), 449–472.Google Scholar
  3. Arvidson, M., Lyon, F., McKay, S., & Moro, D. (2013). Valuing the social? The nature and controversies of measuring social return on investment (SROI). Voluntary Sector Review, 4, 3–18. Scholar
  4. Bagnoli, L., & Megali, C. (2009). Measuring performance in social enterprises. Non Profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(1), 149–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barbetta, G. (2012). Le fondazioni - in Gori, C. (ed.), L’alternativa al pubblico? Le forme organizzate di finanziamento privato nel welfare sociale. Milano: Franco Angeli.Google Scholar
  6. Barman, E. (2007). What is the bottom line for nonprofit organizations? A history of measurement in the British voluntary sector. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 18(2), 101–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barraket, J., & Yousefpour, N. (2013). Evaluation and social impact measurement amongst small to medium social enterprises: Process. Purpose and Value. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 72(4), 447–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Battilana, J., & Lee, M. (2014). Advancing research on hybrid organizing—Insights from the study of social enterprises. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 397–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bernard, H., & Ryan, G. W. (1998). Text analysis: Qualitative and quantitative methods. In H. R. Bernard (Ed.), Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.Google Scholar
  10. Boris, E. T., & Kopczynski Winkler, M. (2013). The emergence of performance measurement as a complement to evaluation among U.S. foundations. New Directions for Evaluation, 2013(137), 69–80.Google Scholar
  11. Brest, P., & Harvey, H. (2008). Money well spent: A strategic plan for smart philanthropy. New York: Bloomberg Press.Google Scholar
  12. Bryman, A. (2016). Social Research Methods – 2nd edition, Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Buckingham, H. (2009). Competition and contracts in the voluntary sector: Exploring the implications for homelessness service providers in Southampton. Policy & Politics, 37, 235–254. Scholar
  14. Byrne, B. (2004). Qualitative Interviewing – in Seale, C. (ed.), Researching Society and Culture. SAGE Publications Inc.Google Scholar
  15. Castles, F. G., Leibfried, S., Lewis, J., Obinger, H., & Pierson, C. (2010). The Oxford handbook of the welfare state. In Oxford University press, Oxford. New: York.Google Scholar
  16. Clark, C., Rosenzweig, W., Long, D., & Olsen, S. (2004). Double Bottom Line Project Report: Assessing Social Impact in Double Bottom Line Ventures. Rockefeller Foundation. In Duke University.Google Scholar
  17. Crutchfield, L. R., & Grant, H. M. (2008). Forces for good: The six practices of high-impact nonprofits. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  18. David, M., & Sutton, C. D. (2011). Social research - an introduction. SAGE Publications Inc..Google Scholar
  19. Decreto Legge 6 giugno 2016, n. 106. Delega al Governo per la riforma del Terzo settore, dell'impresa sociale e per la disciplina del servizio civile universale. (GU n.141 del 18-6-2016).Google Scholar
  20. Dey, C., & Gibbon, J. (2017). Moving on from scaling up: Further Progress in developing social impact measurement in the third sector. Social and Environmental Accountability Journal, 37, 66–72. Scholar
  21. Ebrahim, A., & Rangan, V. K. (2014). What impact? A framework for measuring the scale and scope of social performance. California Management Review, 56(3), 118–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Epstein, D., & Klerman, J. A. (2012). When is a program ready for rigorous impact evaluation? The role of a falsifiable logic model. Evaluation Review, 36(5), 375–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. European Commission (2011). Social Business Initiative - Creating a favourable climate for social enterprises, key stakeholders in the social economy and innovation, {SEC(2011) 1278 final}. Brussels, 25.10.2011 COM(2011) 682 final.Google Scholar
  24. European Commission (2012). Design and commissioning of counterfactual impact evaluations. A practical guidance for ESF managing authorities.Google Scholar
  25. Fleishman (2007). The Foundation: A great American secret; how private wealth is changing the world. Public affairs.Google Scholar
  26. Flynn, P., & Hodgkinson, V. A. (Eds.). (2001). Measuring the impact of the nonprofit sector. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  27. Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grieco, C., Michelini, L., & Iasevoli, G. (2015). Measuring value creation in social enterprises: A cluster analysis of social impact assessment models. Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44(6), 1173–1193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Guest, G., MacQueen, K. M., & Namey, E. E. (2012). Applied thematic analysis. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hackler, D., & Saxton, G. D. (2007). The strategic use of information technology by nonprofit organizations: Increasing capacity and untapped potential. Public Administration Review, 67(3), 474–487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hall, K., Miller, R., & Millar, R. (2016). Public, private or neither? Analysing the publicness of health care social enterprises. Public Management Review, 18, 539–557. Scholar
  32. Harlock, J., (2013). Impact Measurement Practice in the UK Third Sector: a Review of Emerging Evidence (Working Paper No. 106). Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham.Google Scholar
  33. Harvey, W.S (2011). Methodological Approaches for Junior Researchers Interviewing Elites: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Working Paper Series 01.09. University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC.Google Scholar
  34. ISTAT (2013). Nono censimento dell’industria e servizi, istituzioni e non Profit Roma: ISTAT.Google Scholar
  35. Jones, K. R., & Mucha, L. (2014). Sustainability assessment and reporting for nonprofit organizations: Accountability “for the public good”. Voluntas, 25, 1465–1482. Scholar
  36. Kroeger, A., & Weber, C. (2014). Developing a conceptual framework for comparing social value creation. Academy of Management Review, 39(4), 513–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Leck, C., Upton, D., & Evans, N. (2016). Social return on investment: Valuing health outcomes or promoting economic values? Journal of Health Psychology, 21(7), 1481–1490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Leeuw, F. &Vaessen, J. (2009). Impact evaluations and development: NoNIE guidance on impact evaluation.Google Scholar
  39. Liket, K. C., & Mass, K. (2015). Nonprofit organizational effectiveness: Analysis of best practices. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44(2), 268–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Maier, F., Schober, C., Simsa, R., & Millner, R. (2015). SROI as a method for evaluation research: Understanding merits and limitations. Voluntas, 26, 1805–1830. Scholar
  41. Maier, F., Meyer, M., & Steinbereithner, M. (2016). Nonprofit organizations becoming business-like: A systematic review. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45, 64–86. Scholar
  42. Manetti, G., & Toccafondi, S. (2014). Defining the content of sustainability reports in nonprofit organizations: Do stakeholders really matter? Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 26, 35–61. Scholar
  43. Millar, R., & Hall, K. (2013). Social return on investment (SROI) and performance measurement. Public Management Review, 15, 923–941. Scholar
  44. Ní Ógáin, E., Lumley, T., Pritchard, D., (2012). MAKING AN IMPACT: Impact measurement among charities and social enterprises in the UK. New Philantropy Capital, London, UK.Google Scholar
  45. Nicholls, A. (2009). “We do good things don’t we?”: Blended value accounting in social entrepreneurship. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 34(6–7), 755–769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Noya, A. (2015). Social entrepreneurship - social impact measurement for social enterprises (OECD employment policy papers). Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.Google Scholar
  47. Oster, S.M., (1995). Strategic Management for Nonprofit Organizations: Theory and cases. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Phillips, N., Lawrence, T. B., & Hardy, C. (2004). Discourse and institutions. Academy of Management Review, 29(4), 635–652.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Polonsky, M., & Grau, S. L. (2011). Assessing the social impact of charitable organizations—Four alternative approaches. International Journal Nonprofit Voluntary Sector Marketing, 16, 195–211. Scholar
  50. Polonsky, S. L. G., & McDonald, S. (2016). Perspectives on social impact measurement and non-profit organisations. Marketing Intelligence & Plan, 34, 80–98. Scholar
  51. Reich, R. (2013). What are foundations for? A Panel Debate on Philanthropy and Democracy. Conference Debate. ASH Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School, (April 23, 2013).Google Scholar
  52. Rey-Garcia, M., Liket, K., Alvarez-Gonzalez, L. I., & Maas, K. (2017). Back to basics. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 27, 493–511. Scholar
  53. Ricciuti, E., & Turrini, A. (2018). Foundations in Italy: What roles and challenges? American Behavioral Scientist., 62, 1822–1832. Scholar
  54. Saldaña, J., (2016). The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. SAGE Publications, Los Angeles; London.Google Scholar
  55. Saxton, G. D., & Guo, C. (2011). Accountability online: Understanding the web-based accountability practices of nonprofit organizations. Non Profit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(2), 270–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Schuyt, T. N. M. (2017). Philanthropy and the philanthropy sector: An introduction. Routledge.Google Scholar
  57. SROI Network (2012). A guide to social return on investment.Google Scholar
  58. Stemler, S. (2001). An overview of content analysis. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(17).Google Scholar
  59. Trelstad, B. (2014). The elusive quest for impact: The evolving practice of social-impact measurement. In L. Salamon (Ed.), New frontiers of philanthropy. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Wainwright, S. (2002). Measuring impact: A guide to resources. National Council for voluntary Organisations. London: UK.Google Scholar
  61. Whitman, J. R. (2008). Evaluating philanthropic foundations according to their social values. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 18, 417–434. Scholar
  62. Worth, M.J. (2014). Nonprofit management: principles and practices. Third edition - SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  63. Yin, R. (2009). Case study research - design and methods. SAGE Publications Inc.Google Scholar
  64. Zadek, S. & Radovich, S. (2006). Governing Collaborative Governance: Enhancing Development Outcomes by Improving Partnership Governance and Accountability. AccountAbility and the corporate social responsibility initiative, working paper no. 23. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Research on Health and Social Care Management (CERGAS), SDA Bocconi School of ManagementBocconi UniversityMilanItaly
  2. 2.Yunus Centre for Social Business and HealthGlasgow Caledonian UniversityGlasgowUK

Personalised recommendations