Kinds of Impact

There’s a lot of discussion about impact these days, and it’s pretty clear that the word is being used in slightly different ways. In some cases, it’s just being used as a word that means “consequences” or “effect” as a generic way of talking about something that’s happened as a result of something else. “That’s just not going to have much impact on me”, one might hear about street closures in another part of town.

But, in the world of evaluation, the word “impact” means something more, especially if it’s being combined with the words “investing” or “economic” or “social”. Then the word “impact” starts to have a more specific meaning because a causal relationship is being suggested between programs, services or activities and any change that has occurred as a result of those. The causal relationship does not need to be direct but does need to be traceable. For example, the OECD says that impact is: “The positive and negative changes produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended.”

“Impact” can thereby become a goal in itself, not just a way of describing something that has happened. And, as part of this more focused thinking, specific kinds of impact can be investigated by evaluators because they are the intended outcomes of a program, service, or set of activities.

Financial and economic impacts are usually the first that come to mind. We are very used to thinking of the monetary effects of things we do. In our personal lives, there might be a financial impact to going on a holiday instead of fixing the leaky roof. The consequences might be a ruined ceiling … or a rested and refreshed body that doesn’t mind tackling the shingles! We are also used to hearing about the economic impact of different employability programs that aim to get underemployed people earning more, paying higher taxes, and striving for promotions. The aim is to making a contrition to the improvement of the economy through the programs.

Two other types of impact commonly talked about are environmental impacts and health impacts. We talk about the impact of plastic and sugary drinks on our collective health, for example. There is a monetary argument that can be made, but we understand that these issues are about more than money. We know that there are specific human costs that we want to avoid not just on an individual level but on a broader, societal level. Future trajectories will be shaped by how we respond in the current time.

Similarly, we are beginning to hear more about social impact in public discourse. This is the one that interests me the most. While the term may be used more generally in those discussion, in evaluation circles “social impact” refers to specific changes that emerge in small groups of people, communities, populations, or social infrastructure as a result of programs, services, or activities. These may or may not be connected to financial or economic issues at first glance, but they are definitely connected to human interactions and a vision of the quality of life we wish for our citizens and the kind of society we want to form together. Having done a lot of work evaluating programs with a social purpose, I see what a difference a well-designed program can make not just in individual lives but in communities, networks, and policies.

Examples of the goals of social impact projects would be: increase in safety on playgrounds, closer communities, improved access to educational resources, reduction in seniors experiencing isolation, or improved sense of well-being in new mothers living in rural areas. The primary focus is on people and quality of life, knowing that many other variables are directly linked. To highlight their importance, I sometimes ask clients “imagine if all of the social support organizations disappeared overnight … what would happen?” Imagining the absence of the social impact of these organizations gives some sense of their immense value to the society in which we live.

The distinction between different kinds of impact – financial, economic, environmental, social – should be important to program planners and evaluators for a number of reasons. We need to remember that “what we value” as a society is not just described in monetary terms. We should be opening talking about the values and principles that underly programs or services we hope to deliver. If making social change is at the heart of an initiative, that needs to be explicitly discussed. We need to find collaborators who share those visions.

The talk of social impact needs to be turned into real action however. All too often, program planners pay lip service to the idea of creating social value without really addressing the underlying complexities that are causing the social challenge in the first place. Social impact programs require more time and resources to reach their goals. As developers, we therefore need to ensure that interventions are intentionally designed, adequately resourced, and realistic. A ten-week program to support single mothers in crisis cannot make lasting change. In fact, it is disingenuous and indeed harmful to the primary beneficiaries to suggest otherwise.

And finally, as evaluators, with each project we should seek out evidence of different kinds of value. Finding out from primary and secondary beneficiaries what has changed for them should always include social indicators, even if the primary goal of the program, service or activity was a financial or economic one. This not only increases the understanding of the impact of a program but also guides iterative program improvements.

As an example, I read a report in which the success of micro loans provided to villagers of a lower-caste was measured strictly as an increase in household income, ignoring important opportunities to measure increased self-esteem, increased engagement in village politics, improved social cohesion, or increased children’s attendance at school. Imagine if the program could intentionally build on the broader range of impacts being experienced! Closer to home, there are employability programs that miss the opportunity to gather information about positive changes that may have happened in relationships, families or friendship circles because someone got a job that returned their sense of dignity.

In short, “impact” can be described in many ways and we should not shy away from consciously and intentionally focusing on the creation of social value in our work as program planners and evaluators in the social service sector. If we expand the definition of “what matters” beyond what is easily monetized, we may even begin to address some of our social challenges – poverty, divisiveness, segregation, aggression, social unrest, addictions – in a more effective way because we are willing to look at social value more realistically and make the longer-term investments that true social change requires.

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