Nonprofit Periscope

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Posts Tagged ‘Gen Y

What is social impact?

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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

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Introducing the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance

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For much of my nonprofit career, I’ve been following some of the sector’s rising stars–the young nonprofit professionals who not only bring their best to their work, but also blog about it so others can learn and converse along the way. Now this cohort has formalized and today is inaugurated as the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance, the brainchild of Allison Jones.

Here’s the Alliance roster so far:

I’m tickled to be part of this alliance, because we millennial nonprofit bloggers (it’s a niche, you know) look out for each other anyway, and it’s about time we made it official. Kind of like a polygamous engagement party for the blogosphere. But less scandalous.

My hope is that this alliance will become a conduit for meaty discussion on the nonprofit sector, drawing from each of our areas of expertise and sharing flavors across them. For example, I’ve already contributed two guest posts to the Nonprofit Career Month blog, but I’m sure my own topic–the intersection of nonprofits and news media–has a lot to learn from Allison’s blog on nonprofit careers. If other young nonprofit professionals are inspired to add their own blogging voices to the conversation, it’ll only get richer from there.

So to tackle one of Allison’s prompts for my inaugural post: why am in the sector? I’m a nonprofit sector devotee because it’s a unique and irreplaceable safety net. I’ve worked for public policy shops, refugee services, a think tank, a dispute resolution center, and a canvassing group–all nonprofits, all vital. Nonprofits take on challenges and responsibilities that no one else will. For this kind of work–the hungry-feeding, back-clothing, soul-ministering, scientific researching, arts-fostering,  cause-advocating kind–the public sector is too snarled in red tape and the private sector is too entranced by  profit. Nonprofits have the government’s sense of responsibility and business’ innovation, and it’s a perfect pairing. We do thankless work, and more with less, and have been for hundreds of years before “nonprofit sector” was even a name. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?

And the best part yet? We get to write about it.

Written by eclawson

October 12, 2009 at 11:16 PM

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