Why Measure Social Impact?

“If we say we want our creative work ‘to contribute to a more just and equitable community,’ then we have a moral imperative to understand if we’re making a difference and how we can always be improving our work to make progress toward that goal.” This theater organization leader expresses the fundamental reason to measure social impact.


You want to understand how your arts programs are moving the needle to achieve their intended social or civic outcomes.

While the potency of the arts as a catalyst for civic and social change is widely observed, cultural and community leaders struggle to measure it and make the case for the value of arts in civic engagement. They are increasingly asked to prove how investments in arts-based civic engagement lead to social change. Although anecdotal evidence is common, many believe that quantifiable data is needed to demonstrate the contribution art makes to social change.

As arts organizations try to meet this challenge, they are often pressed to define what is meant by “civic” or “social” impact, whose standards to apply, what evidence to look for, and what to document and track. They wonder how to gauge hard-to-measure outcomes such as shifts in attitude or understanding and whether they can attribute civic outcomes to their arts-based civic engagement efforts, exclusive of other factors. Recognizing that some outcomes might not be felt until well after a project concludes, many ask what cultural organizations realistically can do to track evidence of change over a longer term. With limited staff and financial resources to support the demands of serious evaluation, efforts are often constrained, even with the best of intentions.

Public and private funders of arts and of civic engagement and social justice likewise report that they are under greater scrutiny to prove, in concrete terms, the impact of their investments. Civic leaders and policy makers who have the power to include the arts in civic initiatives and to allocate resources need to be convinced. Without more concrete evidence, the arts’ full contribution can be undervalued if not missed entirely.

The tension at the heart of these conversations is that, while there is a desire for concrete metrics to measure social change, the human, social, and community outcomes of arts-based civic engagement cannot always be quantified, nor are they easily or cost-effectively measured.

In A Place to Start, you can become more familiar with evaluative thinking and practice in order to understand the impact of your work and be better poised to make the case.