Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.

Businesses increasingly see the value of sustainability initiatives and continue to develop new and innovative sustainability strategies. Yet something is holding many businesses back from deploying those efforts.

I was recently discussing sustainability strategies with a client and was struck by the topic that seemed to induce the most anxiety: measurement and reporting. The client was not concerned that they didn’t have the capacity to make an impact, but rather that they wouldn’t have the capacity to measure it. Measurement is important to business, as it should be. Companies need to know what the return is on their sustainability investments, to their business and to the environment. But what if our obsession with measurement is hurting our ability to make an impact?

Rob Abbott recently published an article in Sustainable Brands that summarizes this problem rather well. In “Less is More in Sustainability Reporting,” Abbott points out that measuring 81 indicators—the number in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines—or even 20-35, which is the amount in an average Balanced Scorecard, is causing managers “to lose sight of the few that really drive the achievement of strategic objectives.” Having formal reporting structures is certainly a step in the right direction. But if the amount of work necessary to complete these reports is so daunting that companies significantly alter or abandon their sustainability initiatives, then we’re taking two steps back.

We at Mission Measurement are firm believers that measurement should drive strategy, but that only works if your measures are intentionally designed to capture your impact. The most successful social strategies we see focus on moving the needle on a small set of key metrics. Measuring everything and hoping that it all adds up to something is a recipe for disaster in the long run. The key to good sustainability measurement is the same for all social impact measurement: measure what matters.