Impact Measurement

Social impact is not opt-in

August 2019

BY

Lee Crockford

At spur:, we’ve always described ourselves “social impact strategists”, and it’s true — we proudly collaborate and work with people and organisations trying to do good across health and wellbeing, education, environment and sustainability, equality, access, peace, and more.

But there’s something about that descriptor that hasn’t felt 100% complete. It’s like that puzzle piece that looks like it should be a perfect fit, yet somehow doesn’t quite work.

It finally clicked what’s been irking me.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Canberra, and sitting in on a number of conversations, sessions, and panels, it became became apparent to me that there was a belief in the room that creating social impact is explicit. A belief that social impact is an intentional act.

Although it is true that social impact can be intentional, this framing implies that an antonym exists — that actions not labelled specifically as social impact therefore don’t create impact: That they’re able to sit in a vacuum.

This vacuum, however, simply does not exist.

Whether intentional or not, you are creating impact — possibly positive, possibly neutral, possibly negative. Maybe even all three in different ways.

Every single action or inaction carries weight, carries meaning, and affects the people and world around it. Wellbeing, sustainability, equity, fairness, and the environment are all impacted.

The business sector loves terms like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), triple bottom line, etc., and although these terms can be useful to help pull focus around a specific cause or need, they often eschew and obfuscate the wider impact of the business on its staff, the environment, wellbeing, ethics, etc.

A law firm might have a great CSR team helping to support local children’s sporting teams, but their internal policies un-intendedly mean employees are stressed because they can’t get home to their families on time for dinner.

A social enterprise might have a great ‘1-for-1 model of donating meals to those in need, but have an unethical supply chain.

An accountancy firm might have a flexible and supportive ‘parents’ policy’, but their lack of diversity leaves some members of staff feeling isolated.

A key moment at the conference was during a session titled “Business’s role in social change”, and the topic of the marriage equality plebiscite was raised.

A delegate from an Australian bank spoke about their decision to not take a public stance on supporting either side of the campaign. They were content in the view that by not ‘taking a side’, they were able to effectively remain in a neutral vacuum.

The bank is an employer of LGBTIQ+ staff. By fence-sitting on a topic that was polling with c. 70% public support:

These might sound like ‘personal’ issues, but each of the questions above profoundly impact employee wellbeing, culture, productivity, staff retention, and a range of other domains that relate to the profitability of an organisation. (A blog on this topic is coming soon).

Understanding the impact of everything you do isn’t a ‘nicety’, it profoundly affects business success.

Although the intention of the bank was good, their capacity to stay truly neutral is a myth.

This example is particularly overt, as it relates to a historic piece of legislation. However, this same thinking can be applied to all facets of business, whether it is supply chains, employee wellbeing, company culture and policies, social media, and so on. These components often exist for a ‘business need’ without consideration of their holistic impact.

How to think about it

If this is starting to turn some cogs in your head about your own organisation’s impact, below is an (oversimplified) diagram to help frame thinking. It examines what you’re doing as a business, NGO, government, or individual through the following lenses:

Internal vs External

Subtle vs Overt

Conscious vs Unconscious

Within each of these areas you are encouraged to brainstorm and categorise elements of your organisation. For example, if you think about your organisation’s diversity hiring policies, this relates to the business internally. The next question is whether your policies are subtle or overt? (eg. are they highlighted and discussed as a point of focus, or are they simply saved unceremoniously in a drive somewhere?) Lastly, were these policies consciously created with the social impact and knock-on effects in mind?

The diagram below some has example content in each area:

Several things to note about this diagram / approach:

Challenges

Simply being more aware of the impact you’re creating (through, for example, the diagram above), is an enormous step forward. However, there are also potential challenges in becoming more impact-minded, or in engaging others to think in an impact-centric way:

False dichotomies: There is a long-held notion in business that doing good comes as the peril of profitability. We’ll be writing another blog soon on this very topic, but for now, let’s just say it’s a dated mindset and business grows when being impact-focussed, not despite of it.

Complexity: Once understood how every single action, policy, word, and intent carries inherent impact, the enormity of the amount of work needed can become overwhelming. That said, start small; begin with one facet or area. Big impact can often be the result of the smallest actions.

Unholistic thinking / failure of paradigm: A challenge within any organisation is when impact is ‘outsourced’ to one small team or section of the org, rather than owned by everyone — especially the powers that be. If you want to see deep impact, everyone must be involved in some way.

Measurement: If you’re going to go to the effort of ‘doing a thing’, then it’s important to know that your time was worthwhile. Measuring impact isn’t always easy — especially when trying to measure qualitative factors (eg. wellbeing). We always recommend starting with a clear understanding of ‘what is the change you want to see?’. (Alternatively, as social impact strategists, measuring social impact is our bread and butter, so feel to get in touch.)

Each of us affect the world around us every day as individuals and through the work we do — whether knowingly or unknowingly. While the degree may vary, nothing is free from creating a ripple effect.

Focussing out attention towards creating positive impact with out actions isn’t just a nicety. It fundamentally makes our lives as individuals, businesses, and communities stronger, more sustainable, and healthy.

Every every word you write, every action you take is creating impact — the question I have for you is: do you know what that impact is?