Social Impact Academy: The Why, What, and How of Social Impact

Social Impact Academy: The Why, What, and How of Social Impact

Earlier this week, the President and Co-Founder of GlobalGiving, Mari Kuraishi, joined us for the first session of the Social Impact Academy to dig into the why, what and how of social impact for nonprofits.

Session Recording:

Session Summary:

Building a Social Impact Framework for Your Organization

As you start to consider your organization’s social impact, you will want to develop a framework that is right for your organization that:

  • Makes sense to you; and that is
  • Simple enough to create; and
  • Sophisticated enough to keep for at least a few years.

Your organization will also need to think about the organizational investments that need to be made to focus on social impact. The Performance Imperative is a framework that was created by a group of nonprofit leaders and funders to define seven organizational pillars that create the best circumstances for maximum social impact. The Performance Imperative is based on many of the principles that are described in the book, Leap of Reason by Mario Morino. In addition to providing a solid foundation for organizations to focus on social impact, is also used by funders to identify desired qualities in potential grantees.

The Performance Imperative is made up of seven pillars:

  • Pillar 1: Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership
  • Pillar 2: Disciplined, people-focused management
  • Pillar 3: Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies
  • Pillar 4: Financial health and sustainability, think about sustainability before impact
  • Pillar 5: A culture that values learning
  • Pillar 6: Internal monitoring for continuous improvement
  • Pillar 7: External evaluation for mission effectiveness

GlobalGiving’s Experience with Social Impact

  • GlobalGiving’s founders felt that the methods of the World Bank and other institutional funders were inflexible and ineffective
  • GlobalGiving created a platform for smaller organizations to raise funds for their innovative ideas
  • As GlobalGiving reflects on our own impact journey, there are several pillars from The Performance Imperative that particularly resonate:

Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership

Courageous leadership means bringing together people willing to share in a task you are not sure will succeed and creating ambitious goals, not just goals you know you can meet. A GlobalGiving, this means that we are willing to take some risk to achieve goals. At GlobalGiving, our leadership have led the effort to:

  • Organize around values (not rules)
  • Initiate the impact conversation at GlobalGiving, posing the tough question: are we making a difference in the world?
  • Create our BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goals, GlobalGiving’s BHAGs: 100% of our nonprofit partners will listen, act, learn, and repeat within their own organizations
  • Develop KPIs (key performance indicators) of our success

Well-designed programs and strategies

GlobalGiving uses 7Geese, a performance management tool, to set SMART goals during annual planning process. The organization implements frequent experiments around the website and service offerings, discarding what doesn’t work and doubling down on what does.

Financial health and sustainability

At GlobalGiving, financial health and sustainability had to come first, before other pillars were prioritized. GlobalGiving is fortunate to have designed an organizational structure so that financial imperatives and impact imperatives are integrated (we earn our keep when we raise funds for our nonprofit partners). We have developed KPIs (key performance indicators) to track the financial health of the organization, including the diversity of funding sources, and to help sound the alarm if we are at risk.

Create a culture that values learning

This pillar is core to who we are at GlobalGiving and it is reflected in our value: Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat. For us, this pillar informs our decision making in other pillars of The Performance Imperative. In addition to internal experimentation, this pillar also drives us to learn from you, the organizations that we serve. The Leadership Council is one of example of this.

Dilemmas Surrounding Social Impact

The what and why of social impact are easy. The dilemma is how. It is difficult to discover whether your organization is effectively reaching targeted goals. It is complicated to know how to influence factors that create the change we want to see, especially when there may be dynamics that you can’t see or recognize. Mari shared one example that was relevant to her time at the World Bank:

  • In 1991, the World Bank believed that the most important thing to do was support democratic reform and market institutions in Russia. However, the flow of resources from the Soviet Union to private bank accounts laid the groundwork for corruption in the regime which undercut most of the World Bank’s efforts. The World Bank’s theory of change didn’t account for things that it couldn’t see. The World Bank was not open to the possibility that there were parts of the story that it did not know.


Q: If you don’t measure social impact, you won’t be able to receive grants and donations. How do we reconcile these expectations?

A: One thing you must do is create social impact measurements that work for you and not just the funders. If the metrics that you are using aren’t useful to you and your own programs, they are not helpful. One of the examples I can give from my own experience is that one of our funders said to GlobalGiving, “You must have a retention rate of 50% of donors,” which seemed to make sense. In reality it was very difficult, we did crazy things to achieve that requirement. It would have been better for me to push back on that and say, “Let’s focus on our acquisition rate instead.”  Always acknowledge that social impact is important to both you and the funder.

Q: Can you describe what a KPI is and what that looks like for GlobalGiving?

A: KPIs are Key Performance Indicators. KPIs are the things that help you figure out how likely you are to achieve your goals in the next quarter. In our context, we do a lot of work with corporate partners. We can’t predict how many corporate partners we will have if we do not have KPIs. In this case our KPIs are how many potential corporate partners we are talking to and the number of potentials in various stages of becoming partners. These are key indicators of how many corporate partnerships we will have by the end of a period. Another of our KPIs is the rate at which project leaders like you are logging into our system.

Q: How can I get a copy of the Leap of Reason, the book that The Performance Imperative is based on?

A: Download the Leap of Reason for free here to learn more about The Performance Imperative. Get engaged with the Leap of Reason community here.

Q: Impact is a broad word; can you help describe it in relation to time?

A: In my mind, there is a hierarchy with outputs, outcomes, and impact. Let’s say we are in healthcare. Outputs might be the number of patients seen in the clinic. Outcomes are things like reduced maternal mortality or increased longevity. Outputs are easily measured, sometimes day to day, and outcomes measured over a longer term. Impact is yet one more meta-level. Increased maternal health is translated into better outcomes for the households that the women are in, so because maternal mortality has been reduced the households in the community have a better chance of being more healthy.  Part of the academy is figuring out what social impact means specifically for your organization.

This post was written in collaboration with Kennan Howlett, Program Team Intern. 

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