Flipping the Social Impact Finger

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Look around and one will notice a lot of talk about social enterprise and social impact. Look closer and you’ll find a lot more of the former and far less of the latter. 

There’s a Buddhist-inspired phrase that I find myself reflecting on often when traveling in the social innovation/entrepreneurship/enterprise/impact sphere:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself

As terms like social enterprise and entrepreneurship, social innovation, social laboratories and social impact (which I’ll lump together as [social] for expediency of writing) become better known and written about its easy to caught up in the excitement and proclaiming its success in changing the world. Indeed, we are seeing a real shift in not only what is being done, but a mental shift in what can be perceived to be done among communities that never saw opportunities to advance before.

However exciting this is, there is what I see as a growing tendency to lose the forest amid the trees by focusing on the growth of [social] and less on the impact part of that collection of terms. In other words, there’s a sense that lots of talk and activity in [social] is translating to social impact. Maybe, but how do we know?

Investment and ROI in change

As I’ve written before using the same guiding phrase cited above, there is a great tendency to confuse conversation about something with the very thing that is being talked about in social impact. For all of the attention paid to the amount of ventures and the amount of venture capital raised to support new initiatives across the social innovation spectrum in recent years, precious little change has been witnessed in the evaluations made available of these projects.

As one government official working in this sector recently told me:

We tend to run out of steam after (innovations) get launched and lose focus, forgetting to evaluate what kind of impact and both intended and unintended consequences come with that investment

As we celebrate the investment in new ventures, track the launch of new start-ups, and document the number of people working in the [social] sector we can mistake that for impact. To be sure, having people working in a sector is a sign of jobs, but the question of whether they are temporary, suitably paying, satisfactory, or sustainable are the kind of questions that evaluators might ask and remain largely unanswered.

The principal ROI of [social] is social benefit. That benefit comes in the form of improved products and services, better economic conditions for more people, and a healthier planet and wellbeing for the population of humans on it in different measures. These aren’t theoretical benefits, they need to be real ones and the only way we will know if we achieve anything approximating this is through evaluation.

Crashing, but not wrecking the party

Evaluation needs to crash the party, but it need not kill the mood. A latent fear among many in [social] is likely that, should we invest so much energy, enthusiasm, money and talent on [social] and find that it doesn’t yield the benefits we expect or need a fickle populace of investors, governments and the public will abandon the sector. While there will always be trend-hunters who will pursue the latest ‘flavour of the month’, [social] is not that. It is here to stay.

The focus on evaluation however will determine the speed, scope and shape of its development. Without showing real impact and learning from those initiatives that produce positive benefit (or do not) we will substantially limit [social] and the celebratory parties that we now have at the launch of a new initiative, a featured post on a mainstream site, or a new book will become fewer and farther between.

Photo credit: Moonrise by James Niland used under Creative Commons licence via Flickr. Thanks for sharing your art, James.

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