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.