Nonprofit Periscope

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What is social impact?

with 12 comments

When the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance chose our next blogging topic, “What is social impact and how can we measure it?” I felt a little sheepish. I had no idea what the prompt even meant. It sounded like such an activist question, and I’m no activist–or at least I don’t feel like one. I warned the group that my answer might be a little skewed. “But that’s the point,” a fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogger said. “Our answers should be different.”

And I felt like saying, “No really, I don’t get it.”

Luckily, my communications brain kicked into gear and revealed “social impact” for what it is: jargon. And I know where I stand on jargon. I loathe it. Every grant application I peppered with “collaboration” and “optimized results” made me feel like a drone. Those words mean nothing. They’re polite currency of the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds that we use to mask an inability to describe our value…or sometimes an absence of value.

Google “social impact.” You’ll get 77,000 wildly different results. Yet we throw it around as if it means the same thing to all of us.

So, with apologies to my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers who actually have definitions for the phrase as is, allow me to present my non-activist, communications-wonk analysis of “social impact.”

“Social impact” is so overused that it means nothing. There must be a more precise term for what it should mean.

From its uses within the nonprofit sector, I gather it’s meant to mean something along these lines: improvement in the lives of people, both as individuals and groups, particularly the underserved. We can rule out environmental causes and animal welfare, since “social” suggests a focus on the common lives of human beings. Yes, animals are “social,” but my best guess is that “social impact” means “societal impact,” ruling out animals that do not share the society of our species. (Animal activists, spare me; I’m an animal welfare advocate myself and I’m just trying to be precise, not speciesist.)

So what improves the lives of people in society? Here are some examples:

  • Physical security
  • Housing security
  • Food security
  • Civil rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • Artistic expression

Not coincidentally, these are all needs nonprofits function to meet.

And we’re not talking about feeding one person or encouraging the expression of one artist. Butterfly effect aside, that’s not social impact; that’s personal impact. So in order to reach a group of people, “social impact” must be elevated from a one-off, case-by-case  approach: it must be systematic. That way it can be applied efficiently and effectively to many people. Certainly the results are personal, as testimonials from clients often show. But they are also social; that is, system-wide.

So what we have is the overused jargon “social impact” that really means three things: systematic social improvement.

And that may well be a more meaningful way to say what we’re trying to say.

That said, if we work in reverse, how can we tell if “social impact”–that is, systematic social improvement–has been achieved?

One takeaway from my graduate degree in conflict resolution is that conflict, like so many other aspects of human life, is never actually about the visible or superficial. In the same way a biologist is trained to focus a microscope on a cell or a physicist is trained to magnify a particle, I was trained to dig below the surface of a conflict and dissect its roots and inner layers. Many of these layers are insecurities, both physical and emotional. So my perspective on measuring systematic social improvement is heavily influenced by this fixation with underlying problems.

For example, can a food bank perform systematic social improvement? No. Food banks  provide food to hungry people, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, and in doing so they reduce or eliminate the physical hunger of their clients. But physical hunger is not the underlying problem. It’s merely a symptom of that problem, which is food insecurity. Yet most food banks exist not to eliminate food insecurity. That’s not a jab at them; it just points to differences in mission.

For strong examples of systematic social improvement, look no further than FareStart and DC Central Kitchen. Both nonprofits share the mission not just of feeding people, but of training them for employment in culinary arts. It’s systematic: both organizations use a consistent approach to training and services. It’s social: it serves a group of people, usually low- or no-income individuals suffering from food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other underlying problems. And it’s improvement: graduates of the training curricula go on to support themselves with culinary employment.

Nonprofits working in public policy are another example: they go to the root of the problem instead of treating symptoms.

Does this establish a hierarchy of nonprofits, with systematic social improvement organizations above all others? Again, no. If, say, food banks didn’t exist, there would be no lifeline to keep hungry people alive while they seek services that will address their food insecurity. If systematic social improvement is like a hospital, then immediate-needs-fulfilling organizations are like ambulances. They reinforce each other. Without systematic social improvement, there would be an endless string of crises–fires to be doused without removing the flammable material. And without stopgap services, many people would not be sustained long enough to find systematic social improvement centers, which are still relatively rare.

So if I actually use the phrase “social impact” (which, granted, does roll off the tongue more easily) this is what I mean: the pursuit or achievement of consistent improvements in the lives of groups of people.

How do you use “social impact?” Can you suggest a better turn of phrase to phase out this jargon?

Written by eclawson

November 16, 2009 at 10:08 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

12 Responses

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  1. Bravo! for “unpacking” this phrase. There is a lot of jargon floating around the nonprofit sector. I really don’t know how we expect the general public to support our causes when we use terms that we don’t even really understand.

    Joanne Fritz

    November 17, 2009 at 12:47 PM

  2. Great article. I suspect any phrase to phase out this jargon will in fact become nothing more than jargon itself. Perhaps another question is…what has it be jargon to being with? Is it because most of us look at the phrase and immediately think, “someone else will do that” or perhaps, “I don’t know what it means, so I’ll wait for someone else”?

    Truth is, it’s simply a conversation. A conversation for something to be different. Instead of talking about what we’re talking about, i.e. social impact, perhaps we can begin talking about the desired change itself.

    Just a thought.


    November 17, 2009 at 1:49 PM

    • Kesha- I think you’re right that anything can become jargon if overused, and whatever replaces “social impact” will probably meet the same fate. So maybe we just have to swap out terms every couple of decades once they get stale. Anything has to be better than these buzzwords that we nod at sagely without comprehending. If we can wring a few years of meaningful action out of a new term, it’ll be worthwhile.


      November 17, 2009 at 10:53 PM

      • is it social impact is the right term or societal impact?


        September 7, 2010 at 2:02 AM

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  4. As usual, you’ve brought an insightful, analytical view to this question. Now I wish I’d read this post before I wrote mine 🙂


    November 17, 2009 at 3:54 PM

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  6. Love this. Well done!


    November 18, 2009 at 7:29 PM

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