SIM TIG Week: Lessons for Evaluating the Impacts of Accelerators by Ben Fowler, Erin Markel, and Amanda Woomer

We are Ben Fowler and Erin Markel from MarketShare Associates and Amanda Woomer from the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter at Habitat for Humanity International. Business accelerators – which provide enterprises access to training and frequently links to capital – are increasingly used to help social enterprises increase their impact.  We at MarketShare Associates (a consulting firm that supports social impact measurement) often find ourselves working with impact investors, accelerators and others seeking social impact to assess and validate the effects of their investments. We recently worked with the Terwilliger Center to develop a measurement framework for its global housing entrepreneur accelerator platform, ShelterTech. Along the way, we have identified a number of lessons in terms of how to evaluate the impacts of such accelerators:

  1. Consider the trade-offs when designing your evaluation strategy 

Accelerators typically provide a time-bound amount of support to enterprises then seek to understand the resulting financial and social impacts that evolve over a subsequent period of several years. In working together on ShelterTech, we had to make a lot of tricky decisions around what data we would capture. This included aligning the resources available for measurement with the level of confidence that we wanted to have in the data (given the potential challenges with self-reported data) and the levels of impact that we wanted to capture (given that enterprises may create social impacts for their customers, employees and broader society/environment). 

  1. Evaluate the potential future impacts 

Enterprises that are selected for accelerators are often start-ups or early-stage ventures that have created little social impact already. There is thus limited value in trying to make judgments about or measure results to date. Instead, it is more important to establish a measurement strategy upfront to be prepared to capture future impacts. We’ve found that this strategy can also help in vetting enterprises during the accelerator application stage by looking for those with the greatest potential social impact going forward. 

  1. Examine systemic impacts 

While accelerators can directly impact the specific enterprises they work with as well as those firms’ employees, vendors and customers, many accelerators like those run by the Terwilliger Center also seek to have a systemic impact. In such cases, including systems-level measurement is critical. For the Terwilliger Center, understanding broader signs of change in the housing sector in the countries where it works—such as increases in housing investment—is critical. One rad resource that we use frequently in selecting system-level measurement tools is the Disrupting System Dynamics Framework for Understanding Systemic Changes. Developed for USAID, this framework provides a helpful guide for selecting aspects of market systems to measure impacts on. 

  1. Focus on the customer  

Effectively measuring the impacts of accelerators requires that those enterprises participating adopt a customer-centric approach that considers each enterprise’s capacity and incentives for measurement. We’ve found that building social impact measurement into the accelerator curriculum is an efficient way to build capacity and improve data quality. It also helps enterprises understand how data collection can advance their own strategic decision-making simply by using existing processes (such as adding certain questions to existing point-of-sale customer surveys).

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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