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Center for Social Innovation

Waving a Magic Wand for Social Impact

As we enter 2013, I’ve reached out to a handful of my knowledgeable colleagues to hear their version of a New Year’s resolution in response to this prompt: If you had a magic wand and there was one thing you could change in the ecosystem for social impact, what would it be?  

I hope you find their responses as interesting and motivating as I do.  

Bruce McNamerBruce McNamer, President and CEO of TechnoServe

If I could wave my magic wand and make one change in the ecosystem for social impact, it would be this: Let’s focus a little less on new ideas, and a little more on making good ideas – new or old – work.  

Sounds simple, right? In reality, good ideas often languish for lack of real management. As a result, projects fail to achieve the desired impact, money is wasted and it’s hard to say whether failures are due to the ideas themselves, or to ineffective implementation.

From a product development standpoint, the social sector is great at ideation. I’m not playing the curmudgeon here – this is a great thing (and at TechnoServe, we have plenty of new ideas). But too often, we lavish our attention and resources on coming up with ideas at the expense of other aspects of the process – prototyping, testing, marketing, re-engineering and project managing our “products.” And yet, these areas are key to achieving real impact at scale.  

Ultimately, getting this balance right means less emphasis on the shiny new approach to social change and more on devoting resources where they will be effectively used. If we focus on what works – be it a brilliant innovation or a proven solution – we can channel the collective energy of the social sector for maximum impact. 

Jean OelwangJean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite

Change the rules of business for good.  The way the world does business has had significant positive impacts on humanity, but it has also become a big part of our problems.  So here are some of the rules I would change with my magic wand.

Ensure a fair playing field by getting business out of politics.  Stop pillaging Mother Nature and start valuing natural resource usage on balance sheets.  End fossil fuel subsidies and give renewable energy a fair shot.  Shift the lens from quarterly madness to long term thinking and reporting.  Turn your customers into your community and truly listen.  Invest in businesses that are going to make a difference in the world.  Use your philanthropic dollars to break down barriers and stimulate new market based solutions to issues.  Embrace unlikely marriages with government and the not for profit sector to drive larger scale change.  Celebrate business leaders who are putting people and planet alongside profit at the core of all they do.  Never accept the unacceptable and do business like there is a tomorrow.

Kevin StarrKevin Starr, Director of The Mulago Foundation

In my magical world, funders would fund for social impact with the same enthusiasm and accuracy as investors in the commercial world invest for profit, with impact recognized and rewarded in a similar way.  Money would flow toward the best organizations, and the lousy ones would wither and die.  Talent would be recognized and rewarded, with those best at creating impact compensated accordingly, attracting more talent to the social sector and keeping it there.  A focus on cost of impact would replace donors’ obsession with overhead, and donors would be as grateful for impact as doers are for their money.  Both doers and donors would shed their deadwood, adopt better systems and be more accountable. Standards of performance in the sector would rise dramatically.

Most importantly, good ideas would rise to the top and be replicated at higher volumes and quality.  Rather than relying on endless “innovation” to catch donors’ attention, organizations would happily adopt the ideas and methods of their competitors when it led to more impact, and funding would follow.  Successful pilots would not be abandoned because funders wouldn’t pay for trials without an organization to scale up a promising result.  Good ideas and proven interventions would be eagerly rewarded by funders and would spread like benign viruses throughout the social sector ecosystem.

What if the magic wand was in your hands? What key change would you implement to most improve the ecosystem for social impact in your community, your region, your world?


Impact Measurement wand for preventing child abuse and neglect.

I was so pleased to come across this blog and discussion. In Australia we ( have been working on a mechanism (tool and process) for measuring the impact of child and family welfare programs. We need to show government and donors that prevention and early invention programs are not only effective for short term change (research and evaluation) but also make good social and economic sense for long term change. There is a divide to cross between what those with the money intuitively know - that prevention is better than cure - and actually putting money into social programs which strengthen families and prevent the need for expensive high cost interventions like child protection services. How do you prove that a change you help create with a neighbourhood and families contributes to reducing child abuse and neglect, juvenile crime, long term unemployment etc? For us we have found a potential solution in combining evidence informed theory of change and business skills for measuring value creation and economic impact. Our goal is systems level policy and program change. There is also a divide between the wonderful work and knowledge coming out of Stanford CSI and colleagues, and the mainstream child and family welfare system which is largely still counting outputs. Can we explore this further??

Good points

If I was to wave a magic wand it would be for donors/investors to realize that some portion of their investment or donation needs to be at the high-risk/high-return end of the spectrum, where mistakes can be made - and hopefully learned from. Social ventures wouldn't be caught between too-risky for philanthropy, and not profitable enough for Venture Capital. They'd also focus less on measurement and more on continuous improvement, and less on due-diligence and more on mentorship & support to overcome the limitations. - Mitra Ardron and

Excellent points

This makes me really happy! I sure wish this didn't require magic, since with most things "social" we are intervening with actual humans. Humans deserve better than what we are offering them: good intentions and neat ideas. Good intentions (or great marketing) does not equal good work. I agree with Kevin that overhead percentages say nothing about program effectiveness. If I could wave a magic wand, donors would not get suckered by artificial due diligence and would have longer attention spans (about the past and the future). If you are going to give money to help people give safe water, for example, ask the organization whether it can tell you where all of its water projects are and what the status of each project is. If they can't - RED FLAG. If you decide to give, ask whether the water system is still working five years later. Don't just settle for success stories and feeling good about yourself. Thanks, Susan Davis, Improve International

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