In defense of ‘Impact’

Posted on 29. Apr, 2014 by in Cross Sector Partnerships, Org Development, Philanthropy

In a recent PhilanTopic blog post, Derrick Feldmann, president of Achieve, asks, “Has the Word ‘Impact’ Lost its Impact?

As the founder of a company with that word in our name, how could I not respond?

I’m not persuaded that this is a buzzword. I haven’t noticed an overuse of impact the way we have seen with innovative or sustainable. It’s a word that I would expect to hear—a lot—at a nonprofit conference. Just as I expect attendees to be talking about ‘people we serve,’ ‘volunteers,’ ‘fundraising,’ and—hey—even using the word ‘nonprofit’! It’s hard to talk about the work we do every day without basic concepts and language that are core to our professional lives.

And I would argue that impact is precisely one of those words. A “core to the social sector” type of word. Mr. Feldmann hopes to see people using more specific language. So instead of asserting something nebulous like “We are impacting families in low-income neighborhoods,” say, “More than 70 percent of the children who participate in our early-childhood literacy program program can read before they enter kindergarten.”

I wholeheartedly agree that individual nonprofits must be specific when talking about their impact. I think any good fundraiser or communications strategist would as well.

But not all social purpose organizations are working in low-income neighborhoods. Or with children. Or on the issue of early literacy. So we also need language that is broad enough to serve us well when we talk about sector-wide trends or needs. While specificity is important in certain scenarios, we also need words that the social sector can hear, nod our heads about, point to and say, “Yes! That’s what we’re all about! That is why we exist!”

Are we not all trying to impact lives, impact the world, in some way? Impact connotes aspiration, a belief that the work we do will change the world for the better. But it also conveys a sense of accountability. We obligate ourselves to ensuring that our work is, in fact, useful. We obligate ourselves to assessing and continually improving our service delivery mechanisms. To ensuring that it has an impact.

Impact also communicates an end goal, which sets it apart from words like innovative and sustainable that are really the means to an end. The goal is to have an impact, to make things better, to improve the world. It’s the what, not the how. Frankly, I find that refreshing.

The original Latin meaning of the word impact was “to press together.” This is a most fitting way to describe the unique character of social purpose organizations. Every day, the nonprofits and NGOs of the world provide one of the very few spaces in which people from dramatically different walks of life can come together, committing their varied talents and treasures to a solution—sometimes one that impacts their own lives, sometimes one that impacts others.

It is our company’s fundamental belief that this act of building personal relationships across traditional divides “presses people together” in productive tension and does, in fact, open up opportunities for breakthrough solutions.

Nonprofits have a unique opportunity to impact the world. But because monetizing or quantifying their value has traditionally been harder to do than in the for-profit sector, even the most effective organizations have often been short-changed and overlooked. Increasingly, however, organizations are becoming more and more skilled at demonstrating their impact.

So I don’t think the problem is that we have too many nonprofits talking about their impact.

On the contrary, I think we need many more taking both credit and responsibility for the ways they are impacting their communities. Let’s not dissuade them.

Comments are closed.