Opinion: Have you analyzed your program's social return on investment?

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The Sustainable Development Goals have brought with them a key shift in the international discourse and debate on development, including how progress is to be measured. While progress toward the Millennium Development Goals was impressive in many ways — including the reduction in maternal and child mortality — several limitations of the MDGs also became apparent over time.

These included a narrow focus with respect to health matters — resulting in the verticalization of national health and disease programs, a lack of attention to strengthening health systems, the emphasis on a one-size-fits-all development planning approach, and a focus on aggregate targets over equity. As the MDGs drew to a close, global leaders reviewed lessons learned and suggested a renewed focus on the well-being and human rights of individuals, along with holistic attention to the social, economic, and environmental outcomes of interventions.

These shifts in thinking have begged the question of how we can better plan, monitor, and evaluate programming in the context of these factors to achieve the SDGs. One possible approach that could address this need is social return on investment, otherwise known as SROI, analysis.

SROI analysis is the process of measuring and reporting on the social, economic, and environmental value generated by a program or policy. This approach emerged from the social enterprise sector and promotes transparency, accountability, and participation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of activities — all of which are key to human rights-based approaches to health and development. It combines principles of cost-benefit analysis, social accounting, and participatory, community-based research.  

“SROI analysis can help capture outcomes that have typically been hard to capture, such as self-confidence or empowerment.”

— Shubha Kumar, assistant professor of global health, University of Southern California

Donors and government agencies in the Europe and Australia, as well as NGOs — such as World Vision International and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance — are increasingly considering the SROI approach for planning, monitoring, and evaluating programs.

The method for SROI analysis

The first step is to identify the intervention you are going to analyze and whether the analysis will be prospective or evaluative. Establish the scope of the intervention — including its geography and timeline — and its key stakeholders — including how you are going to engage with the key stakeholders throughout the analysis process.  

In the second stage of SROI analysis, with the engagement of the key stakeholders, you construct an impact map or theory of change identifying the inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes — including both positive and negative, intended and unintended — of the intervention.  

The third stage entails collecting data to evidence if and how much outcomes happened and assigning them a monetary value. Fourth, identify the outcomes that would have happened anyway — deadweight — or as a result of others, and eliminate these from consideration.  

In the fifth stage, you would calculate the SROI ratio by summing up the monetized value of all the benefits, subtracting any negatives, and then dividing by the cost. For example, an SROI ratio of 1:3 would indicate that for every $1 invested in the intervention, it generates $3 in value. You would also conduct sensitivity analyses — varying any assumptions made in the calculation — at this time.

The sixth and final stage involves summarizing the information into a report — including both the SROI ratio and its context — disseminating the findings to stakeholders and responding to their queries. You should also use the results to manage or improve your intervention by embedding good outcomes processes.

How does the SROI analysis approach help?

Besides providing a systematic framework for planning, monitoring, and evaluation, it provides information on how an intervention impacts key stakeholders as voiced directly by them — including beneficiaries — along with programs’ value for money.  

Through its stakeholder engagement components, SROI analysis can help capture outcomes that have typically been hard to capture, such as self-confidence or empowerment.

For example, when the International HIV/AIDS Alliance used SROI to understand value for money of anti-stigma and discrimination efforts as part of programs serving people living with HIV/AIDS in two sites in Zambia, the analysis yielded ratios of approximately 1:21 and 1:14, respectively. This suggests highly positive returns on investment in these programs at both sites and the need to consider the impacts of reduced stigma and costs for people living with HIV/AIDS for longer than typical five-year reports for an accurate assessment.

Another situation in which SROI analysis can be helpful is when donors or NGOs are considering investments or programs in the context of an overall portfolio. For example, since improving health outcomes in many cases often requires investing not only in health systems but also in transportation infrastructure, programming across interdependent factors can be more effective than the traditional siloed approach.

While SROI certainly has its limitations, particularly the difficulties associated with monetization, there is widespread recognition that resources are limited and any program planning and evaluation in today’s world must include an assessment of value for money. There is also increasing emphasis on individual well-being and participatory approaches to health and development to tackle inequalities and promote equity.  

Global health and development organizations that recognize the changing landscape and act to implement planning, monitoring and evaluation approaches, such as SROI analysis that can help to prove and improve their impacts, will be best poised to lead in this SDG era.

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About the author

  • Shubha%2520kumar

    Shubha Kumar

    Dr. Shubha Kumar is director of the online MPH program and assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California. Her professional and research work focuses on strategic planning, monitoring & evaluation, and capacity building and training in collaboration with domestic and international governmental and nongovernmental organizations. She is most well-known for her expertise in social return on investment analysis.