Convergence, Tribes and the Impact Revolution

Ben Carpenter Social Value International CEO reflects on the challenges of a growing movement. Impact thinking is being adopted rapidly across new sectors with new players. How do we react?

Imagine lots of people walking towards the centre of a circle. They all have different starting points but are converging into the middle and are starting to meet and collide. This is the scene described by Sir Ronald Cohen this week as he described the state of impact measurement and thinking. Convergence around principles and impact theory was a theme echoed by many this week at the OECD Conference #PF4S. Unsurprisingly, another re-occurring theme was the different tribes we all belong to and so this short blog is a reflection on what needs to happen as our tribes collide.

As human beings we are naturally tribal, we take comfort from belonging to a group of similar people with similar views. The impact world is no different. There’s the evaluation tribe(s) operating mainly in the non-profit/academic worlds, there’s the accountants mixing (occasionally) with the corporate sustainability professionals and there’s the policy makers, investors, the big data enthusiasts, technologists and many more.

I take great pride in telling people that Social Value International is an organisation, no – a movement that has members representing all these tribes. We may be relatively small (approximately 2,000 paid members) but our diversity and geographical spread makes us quite unique. Here’s the quick plug to join if you’re not a member ?

In our office we have a grid mapping out the proliferation of impact frameworks, principles, tools. There will never be one to rule them all. We must get comfortable with that – but we must also get comfortable at looking at others and adopting practice from other disciplines, not reinventing the wheel. Measuring social impact requires a range of skills from a range of disciplines.

At this week’s conference in Paris the Impact Management Project (IMP) was on everyone’s lips – it’s an exciting new network that SVI are involved in (along with the OECD, UNDP, GRI, and other global institutions) that has a good chance of mainstreaming a lot of impact thinking. But next week I will go to a different conference and I expect most people not to know of IMP and next week’s tribe will be focussing on another initiative or approach. How should we respond? – “Keep Calm and remember the (Social Value Principles!)” How does it complement or contradict our thinking?

Last month the Harvard Business Review published an article about a new methodology created by TPG Rise (an Investment fund) that can calculate the value of an investment. This article (quite rightly) stirred up huge condemnation within our community for three main reasons: Firstly, the methodology contains some of the pitfalls that we’ve had to painfully navigate over the years. Secondly, it enhances their reputation without stating that the methodology is only being applied to a small portion of their investments not their mainstream work. Lastly, perhaps most frustratingly was the lack of reference to other existing approaches.

Again, how do we respond? As a movement we are stronger together so (deep breath) “welcome to the community” and I’ll normally give a polite signposting to the SVI principles and assurance standard. We can also all be proud in explaining that we are a member owned network of practitioners who have been developing methodology collaboratively for over ten years now. Join us (oh I’ve already plugged that!) – help us make it better!

Our community is growing. More people in different tribes (professions/industries) are realising that the systems we currently use are not helping – if we want to create a better world it’s time for a change. This is the same for businesses, governments, investors, non-profits – all of us.

On a panel discussion about frameworks Bob Eccles made the point that measurement is a social construct and that we do not need perfection, we need agreement on the way to measure it. To take the analogy with financial accounting, standardisation only emerged after the great depression in the early 20th century – prior to the great depression businesses all reported different financial information. This practice has evolved over decades and is still not perfect but through regulation and high levels of practice and audit we have a system that has created a lot of wealth for some people, although we now realise in a very unequal way.

So, to finish as I begun by para-phrasing Sir Ronald Cohen; “our movement is an historical endeavour. We must change the system from one that optimises (financial) risk and return to one with (social) impact as its third dimension. We may not look like revolutionaries, but we are all part of the impact revolution – what role will you play?”

Join us! (third time lucky!)

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