In the barrage of news and information I devour every day, I find nuggets of insight that help me do my job as Founder of Connective Impact better, which means aiding NGOs, companies and governments to collaborate for social, environmental and economic impact. Inherent in Connective Impact’s mission is the need to define ‘impact’ for our clients, and to push the envelope when we see the potential for more of it.
I’ve definitely questioned what ‘impact’ really means, and how we know whether we’ve obtained it. I wrote an entire book about finding your own personal impact, for goodness sake. Yet when I saw Toms’ Impact report released last week, I felt a question bubble up inside: “is this really impact?” It’s pretty amazing to think that the company started by social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie after a trip to Argentina in 2006 has given away 75 million pairs of new shoes, and now, with expanding product lines, the company is burgeoning its giving by expanding their one-for-one model and donating to fresh water causes, education, prenatal health and even bullying prevention. When Toms reports that their one-for-one glasses business has “helped restore sight to over 500 thousand people in need” it is incredibly hard to doubt the impact that must have. I do wonder though, while reading these very inspiring statistics, about their methods for data capture, reporting and impact measuring. How does giving away shoes and eyeglasses translate into improving livelihoods and leading these recipients out of poverty? Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt it does. I am sure if I spoke to the right people at Toms, I could get that information. I suppose that’s the point to this thought of mine. When I question what impact really means for a company, an NGO, a government agency, a foundation or even a person (as I do in ChangeSeekers) I am often comforted by the fact that many companies in this day and age CAN tell you where the data comes from, how their impact is measured, where there are holes in their framework, and where they have greater needs to affect real change in their spheres of influence. The fact that we are even seeing companies reporting on impact rather than straight P&L on a regular basis means we have come a long way.
We can’t rest on these laurels, though. Even a company as forward thinking and acting as Toms, will have needs and gaps that must be addressed, ideally in partnership.
One organization that I admire greatly in the way they push NGOs, brands, governments and other influential organizations to measure and build greater social and environmental impact collaboratively is the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA). COSA has been helping socially minded companies and organizations evaluate what their promises and commitments towards “sustainability” and “impact” really mean since 2005, and utilizes a robust and tested methodology for collecting data, analyzing it and truly showing results. When we talk about “impact” we may not always think about scope or depth, but COSA is encouraging its customers and partners to think beyond the catchy numbers and consumer facing statements, and truly understand what difference can we make to improve our world. COSA’s approach is worth noting for any organization struggling with how best to define impact. It’s an important question to ask!
In his book, “Rise Up: How to Build a Socially Conscious Business,” Russ Stoddard, founder of purpose-driven brand building company Oliver Russell, explains: “Many of today’s consumers, especially Generation Z and Millennials, are wary of corporate goodness claims. Unfortunately, talk is too often cheap in the corporate world, from decades of greenwashing to the out-and-out fraudulent…..They’re seeking truth—even when it’s not positive.” This is such a pertinent point for companies, even with their splashy social impact reports, to remember. Providing shoes, glasses, even healthcare is so incredibly needed in many parts of the world, don’t get me wrong. And not enough companies are giving back as much as they potentially could be (don’t forget, giving back can be a win-win for any corporate). Yet let’s not discount the rigor necessary to report on impact, and to couch said impact with the staggering needs this planet still has to thrive and prosper.
I will absolutely celebrate the wins along with Toms. In the meantime, I will continue pushing for greater impact regardless of mission, intent or justification. Impact, like corporate social responsibility before it, should one day be just as integral to the way a company, government or any other organization functions as the business operations themselves. It is my goal to get there through partnership development, and I know we can.
Partnership in social enterprise: how to find the right partners and further your impact [reprint from Social Enterprise Alliance Blog]
Now, more than ever, businesses working on social, environmental or economic impact issues are told that in order to be most effective, they must partner, collaborate, build coalitions — take your pick of the “work together for the better” verbs. This is especially true for social entrepreneurs, tasked with finding a way to build purpose into a profit-generating organization, which in its DNA assumes that purpose comes from consensus.
Partnering, while I agree is absolutely critical these days to deliver true impact at scale, it is not always easy. The process of partnering is inherently time consuming, painstaking given the need to vet and match skills, and finding the right partners can be too resource-intensive to match its merit. So, why is partnering critical in order to address sustainability and social impact challenges like climate change, gender equity, poverty alleviation or environmental responsibility? The answer is simple: rather than relying on assumption or pure guess, companies are able to make more informed decisions about their business, investments, corporate social responsibility goals, social impact priorities and even philanthropic endeavors by listening to and working with others that have complementary skill sets.
For Connective Impact, our primary goal is to ensure the right partners are working together around issues of critical social, environmental and economic impact, so collaboration and effective engagement is possible.I have often found that companies jump into partnership development and other collaborative work without taking the time to evaluate the scenarios in front of them, truly understanding the challenges and gaps, and thenidentifying the partners to address those gaps.
Taking a few simple steps makes the process easier and more effective. This approach has been effective for corporations large and small, start-ups, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and even the U.S. Government. At the end of the day we want to see a more productive, healthy and prosperous planet, so leveraging your partners toward those aims is really important. So, how can we make partnering easier, more streamlined and impactful?
First, it is critical for each organization to understand its own goals and objectives before even entering into a partnership or collaboration.Otherwise the mission of the organization’s sustainability strategy will be compromised, and the collaborative group will not be working in a space of comparative advantage. Prioritization at this stage is important, because it takes time and patience to capture all ongoing activity and developments, to determine where there are gaps and needs for partners, so being clear about what is most strategic is key.
Once priorities and specific gaps are clear, the next step is to clarify which existing or potential partners have similar goals, and where there are complementary skill sets to address glaring gaps. Preparation around joint action must happen before a partnership is solidified. This involves ensuring goals are aligned among partners, quantitative outcomes are defined, processes made clear and roles identified. Only then can the collaboration begin effective implementation. Having a clear sense of partnering criteria, what strengths each of the potential partners bring to the collaboration and the specific action items for each partner is critical.
Once a partnership is underway, taking the time to evaluate its effectiveness in both filling in gaps your prioritization exercise identified,and providing additional value, is worthwhile on a regular basis. Partners are partners for a reason: they help you help them. This special dynamic is not permanent. Missions will shift, geographical priorities will change and staff will come and go. Partnerships may change and that is ok. Putting in place a specified, regular check-in point on each partnership will ensure your partnership is built around trust, honesty and integrity of the work. This will also manage the right approach to refine and adjust as the collaborative work progresses.
With the right process in place to identify partners and understand mutual goals and joint outcomes, collaboration and effective engagement with others can be made much more actionable, rewarding and deliver benefit that far exceeds any costs.