Failure as Positive Impact - How to mentor and measure the impact of social innovation


As Impact House experts, we often wear various hats in the Impact revolution. From practitioners, scientists, mentors, and professors to consultants, we are often in the position to apply our knowledge and skills to different challenges in the field of social innovation and impact. In over two years of collaboration with the Gender and Energy Innovation Facility we developed new approaches and rose to new challenges in the field. Impact House was  originally contracted to provide expert support for a social innovation boot camp held in Kenya in September 2020 and followed to provide expert support for two additional boot camps as well as the innovation teams and start-ups in Tanzania and Nepal during their phase of implementation (experimentation) as mentors. We contributed to the selection and evaluation process of the beneficiaries for over 43 applications, 28 boot camp innovations, 10 first-phase projects, and 6 scale-up projects, and finished with designing and providing a methodology for evaluating innovation, reporting and promotion.

Lessons Learned: What were the key challenges in applying existing expertise to the specific needs of the program? 

1. The currency of risk.

Bridging gender inequality and providing access to clean energy in underprivileged areas, especially in the time of COVID – 19 was beyond challenging for all involved. One of the main challenges, when working across the globe as well as providing funds is understanding privilege and prejudice and ensuring a well-thought-through and self-aware cultural relativism while advocating and supporting universal human rights. How is this specific to the field of social innovation? When we work with risk-taking (every innovation, especially social innovation includes financial and non-financial costs and risk for those involved) as we work with or in underprivileged communities and groups the “cost” of the risk rises. Failure is much more expensive and its negative impact is bigger. Thus asking for and enabling risk-taking (innovation) has to be, again a thought-through, self-aware, culturally relative process. 

2. Gender, safety and risk-taking.

How to support bridging gender inequality in strictly patriarchal societies based on traditional gender divisions and polygamy was a very serious challenge. Although we firmly stand for the fight for gender justice, that fight must be contextualized to ensure the safety of women. Innovation and experimentation do provide a certain shelter but can also be perceived as opening the doors to a more serious change that is upsetting to those that benefit from the current division of power. However, we struggled with numerous issues such as the notion of obtaining permission from men (husbands and fathers) for women to be able to participate in an activity. As an absolutely unacceptable practice, involving women without it might mean putting them in danger. In addition, due to the lack of (financial and social) capital and security, when working with women who were experimenting with social innovations, it was necessary to choose disruptions more carefully and while ensuring the understanding of the context.

3. If you fail you pass.

If an experiment fails, and the hypothesis of social innovation is disproven, how can that be a “win”, how can we measure and understand our positive social impact of funding and supporting social innovation if we expect most of them will fail? When talking about social innovations, we are primarily talking about testing and experimenting with hypotheses and the solution itself, i.e. innovation. 

In short, if we are sure an innovation will succeed it is, in fact, not an innovation. With most funding and programs the way to report or collect data is defined as collecting “success stories” or positive social impact data. Thus, when dealing with social innovation and its impact there seems to be a logical discrepancy in evaluation and reporting. One of the most common questions that we got after completing the work with expert support to the Facility was – but how do you know if it worked? How do you know if you succeeded? Thus we decided to elaborate further on the issue of measuring and reporting the impact of experimentation and innovation.

How to measure failure as a positive – step by step

A series of tools were developed during the implementation of the GEIF Facility and organized and presented in the donor’s Tool Kit to be shared with other program developers. Additionally, several case studies were published in the following blogs:  

To measure the impact of innovation in Impact House we developed a bespoke tool that defines three aspects (multipliers) of innovation impact evaluation:

  • innovativeness
  • scaling
  • benefits

INNOVATIVENESS –  first, we look at how innovative the idea is. Even if it has no clear benefits recorded, or can not be scaled, points are given for testing a new idea. Partially because if the idea is disproved this is valuable data for the community or scientists on what not to do. In other words, in this case, we are on the YES side of “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears or sees it fall, did it fall at all” old philosophical question.

SCALING – we then add the quantitative dimension, defined as scaling potential. If this innovation works, how many people, and which groups can be affected by its benefits?

BENEFITS – last but not least, our research question is in the qualitative dimension of evaluation. No matter how many people or communities are affected, what kind of benefits does this innovation carry? 

After all three dimensions have been researched and evaluated we get a much more detailed image of the success of a social innovation tested. In combining its innovativeness, benefits, and scaling potential, we can much better understand and evaluate the impact of social innovation. The results are then shown on a scoreboard: 

… and elaborated on in a written report such as: 

Community impact is defined as empowering Roma in the field of upcycling art through training and job opportunity: 

  • Innovativeness: Modest 

The tools and methodologies used for developing an upcycling business are modest in their novelty and do not show significant innovation even though their content is new to this group of people and this area of work

  • Potential for scaling: Significant

Working with waste and increasing its value through art is scalable not only in this community but globally. The model is very well done and ready to be applied not just in other communities but in other contexts as well

  • Benefits: Fair

The benefits were clear but limited as the model has just finished testing the training phase and the benefits are clear for direct users but are still to be researched for the wider community. The benefits include both financial gains as well as social capital.


As a relatively new field, both social innovation and social impact are still in the process of professionalization, defining methodologies, and reaching a consensus on managing and measuring techniques. Impact House is currently developing a Social Innovation Impact Assessment Tool (SIIAT) with a detailed list of answers and proofs required for each of the three dimensions of the social innovation assessed. We hope such a document would contribute to the professionalization and collaboration in the field of measuring the social impact of innovations.