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Janek Seevaratnam

Senior Corporate Advisor
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 264
E: corporate@cafonline.org

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ARE YOU UP TO THE CHALLENGE OF IMPACT THINKING?

Before I joined CAF I worked as a social impact consultant. We helped a range of charities implement robust impact frameworks to articulate to their stakeholders how they were actually impacting their beneficiaries. The landscape at the time – the economic downturn and public funding cuts, the charity overhead debate, loss of trust in the sector – meant that demonstrating impact became a do or die issue for charities.

When I moved to CAF and into Corporate Responsibility, it felt like social impact joined me on my journey. Suddenly a topic that I thought unique to the charity sector started gaining momentum in the corporate world. A slow stream of big names like Diageo started talking at a company level in 2015 about “evaluating and reporting on the tangible outcomes of [their] actions”. Since then, the floodgates have opened and companies today are much more fluent in the language of outcomes and social impact. One client’s CSR team recently rebranded as a ‘Social Impact team’ to better reflect the company’s priorities.

But impact thinking – focusing on outcomes and long-term impact – is more of a challenge than it sounds. It involves honest and often uncomfortable introspection. It also forces you to think about what you really stand for and want to achieve; and, in contrast, where you should start to let go.

I’ve set out three of the less palatable truths about social impact. If you can stomach these, then the time may be right to think about how to move from outputs, like the number of people your programmes support, to outcomes, like how things change for these people.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU

Returning to social impact’s origins in the charity sector, it surfaced as a way of shifting focus back onto the beneficiary. The statement, “we have provided £1m in funding over 3 years to help local young people at risk” is all about the funder – what they’ve spent, how long for, and how many beneficiaries they can attribute to their intervention. This is a company-centric approach and could be interpreted as an indelicate signpost, saying:

“Look at us and all of our great work, how many people we’ve helped and what makes us a great company.”

But social impact is designed to be a beneficiary-centric concept. By replacing the nature of the company’s intervention with the beneficiary’s experience, the message becomes more complex: “Our programme, which we have committed funding towards over the last 3 years, has helped improve the confidence and interpersonal skills of young people in high risk local areas. One beneficiary, Bobby, says that what he valued most is being able to pursue an apprenticeship scheme. He said: ‘I would never have been able to do this without the programme, and I feel much more secure and hopeful for the future.’”

This shift means that the traditional decision makers – presumably the type of person who is reading this – will have to relinquish programmatic control to truly learn from the people they set out to support.

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SO WHAT?

One of the more difficult exercises in impact thinking is to ask yourself (or, more unsettling, get someone else to ask you) “so what?”.

“We have provided £1m in funding over 3 years to help local young people at risk”.

So what?

“Well, what we’ve been able to do is put them through a tailored training academy.”


So what?

“When they graduate from our academy they have a diploma that serves as a local accreditation.”


So what? (And so on…)

This kind of questioning can seem unnecessarily challenging, but when you’ve exhausted the “so what?”s you’re left with the core of what your programme sets out to achieve. In this case it looks like this:

“As a result, more beneficiaries pursue educational, employment or training opportunities in the local community.”

[The last] so what?

“So, by engaging young people at risk in our programme we build stronger local communities."

And so you arrive at the guiding principle, or the intended impact, of your programme. Note how different this is to the starting point of “we have provided £1m in funding over 3 years to help local young people at risk.” You can only reach this clarity by asking yourself, “What are we actually changing here? So what?”

WHAT REALLY MATTERS?

Personally, for me the trickiest concept to grapple with is around aggregation of your impacts. Let’s assume a company has different operating regions. When it comes to company reporting, group figures are reported which are then broken down by area, allowing the company to say, “This is how we’re performing in our different regions, but this is how we’re performing overall as a company”.

On account of the vast majority of corporate reporting being quantitative, the temptation is to try and aggregate social impacts at a company level. However, an evaluation of any social project takes numerous variables into account: the beneficiary group (made of different age profiles, backgrounds, etc.); the geographical and socio-economic context; the value that these beneficiaries place on different changes, and so on. Ultimately, this is a subjective exercise and the experiences of two beneficiaries – taking part in the same programme but in different part of country – cannot be aggregated.

It can be difficult to accept that subjective experiences are very hard to quantify, and are arguably impossible to compare like for like. But what impact thinking does enable best in class companies to do is maximise the effectiveness and quality of their intervention, whilst also communicating previously untapped value back to the business and stakeholders.

THE IMPACT OF IMPACT THINKING

Taking this journey isn’t painless, but it is extremely rewarding. Benefits of understanding and tracking your outcomes and impact properly include:

Proving and improving your impact

By understanding what you want to achieve, you can examine all the causal links between your inputs and the final outcomes. This will enable you to determine whether changes experienced by beneficiaries can be attributed to your intervention. Crucially, the feedback loop provided through beneficiary engagement means that you can continuously adapt the areas of your programme that need improvement.

Smarter measurement

An impact framework lays out exactly what you need to measure and how, leading to a rich base of unique evidence. This in turn enables you to tell powerful stories and, more importantly, identify the stories that matter. Instead of relying on one, huge CSR report for all of your stakeholders, you will know which messages different groups find most engaging.

Clearer decision making

Impact thinking gives you great clarity around what you need to do to achieve your intended impact; but also, what you’re doing that doesn’t achieve it. This applies from the operational level (eg what to measure and how) to the strategic (eg what to fund and why).

I joined the Corporate Clients team at CAF because I wanted to maximise the potential of business to create a better society – in all honesty, this is the best way I’ve seen to do it so far.

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