Social Impact… but what is it?

Age Matters
31 August 2020
Age Matters theory of change

I often get told that I have a cool job title.

“Head of Social Impact at Age Matters, that sounds impressive. I want that job.”

“How good must your workplace be to have a social impact team. We’re nowhere near doing that.”

Want to know the truth? We can all be the Head of Social Impact. All of our organisations can have a social impact team. But to know that, you have to understand what social impact is.

I’m going to do my best to escape the jargon, beat the “buzzword bingo” that too often infiltrates our workplace conversations. This isn’t going to be an academic, but rather a pragmatic, explanation of social impact.

First humour me for a second with a quick exploration into ancient philosophy. I think part of the reason why we’re all so involved in corporate-speak (or doublespeak if you’re a fan of George Orwell’s 1984) links into Plato’s allegory of the cave. Our workplaces have become the cave, and our words and terms have become the shadows against the wall that we have named. They make sense to us and our workmates, or those in our industry, with whom we spend our time in the cave. But we don’t translate our words for broader consumption. Our echo chambers have turned meaningful terms into meaningless jargon that is easily disregarded.

Which brings me to social impact and what it isn’t. It is not an activity or a thing. It’s not something one person does, nor is it a function that an organisation invests in. It isn’t a job title.

Social impact is an outcome, generally long term. It’s a journey that you undertake, understanding that it takes a long time to drive social change.

We want social impact is to drive a positive change. Yes this is generally the intention, but often it doesn’t play out. The definition provided by the Centre of Social Impact is “the net effect of an activity on a community and the well-being of individuals and families.”

Unfortunately most social issues are “wicked problems.” This plainly means problems that are all interconnected, where a change in one will lead to (or require) a change in another. Without careful consideration and planning, a positive change in one problem may be at the expense of a negative change in the other. If this trade-off isn’t understood or considered, the overall or net effect, could leave us socially worse-off.

Let’s explore a relevant and topical example to understand what this means practically – employment. We all know more jobs are needed and investment into new industries or sectors is required. Agreed?

Scenario 1: We invest into energy creation utilising fossil fuels. This creates hundreds of jobs, possibly thousands. Whilst we have solved some of the current employment challenges, we are also creating environment issues for the future. The overall or net effect is worse-off. This is a negative social impact.

Scenario 2: We invest into energy creation utilising renewable sources. This creates hundreds of jobs, possibly thousands. We have solved some of the current employment challenges, and have also established a platform for positive outcomes for environmental issues into the future. The overall or net effect is improved. This is a positive social impact. Although there is also a negative impact on the fossil fuel industry, such as the many jobs that it provides.

Age Matters first started to understand social impact at a conference in 2016, where we heard Dr Jack Noone from the Centre for Social Impact explain the idea of a Theory of Change. Basically a Theory of Change is like a roadmap for understanding your programs and activities, how they’re interconnected, and how they intend to achieve your long term goal.

Social Impact is the long term change driven by sustained activity.  By having a Theory of Change, you can start social impact measurement against short, medium and long term outcomes so that you have confidence you are working towards your identified social impact. It will enable you to communicate to your Board and your supporters that collectively you’re making progress. If short-term outcomes are not being achieved, then we cannot expect medium and long-term outcomes to be realised. Instead we have to change our activities in light of what the evidence tells us”

Since then Age Matters has built a Theory of Change and social measurement framework. We are starting to capture data over time, so we can notice longitudinally the impacts that our services, policies and decisions are having on our cohort of vulnerable older people. We know, for example:

There’s a famous quotation that the hardest part of any journey is taking the first step. Most people are too afraid of taking that first step so their journey never starts.

In social impact, we can’t afford to be fearful. Often the fear (and risks) of failure, particularly in the public sphere, stops people from sharing where things haven’t gone as expected and what they’ve done to address this. But, we need this information to make stronger policies and practices.

We all need to embrace the excitement of the fact that we all have the opportunity to change the world of tomorrow to be a better place.

-Toby Dawson, Head of Social Impact