Intent vs Impact: Our four-step guide to maximising your social impact

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you:

  • Each year you and your team are begrudgingly dragged to a ‘team volunteering day’ where you’re forced to paint a wall of a local hospital or plant some trees in an unknown distant bushland with the ultimate benefactor remaining unseen or unknown.
  • The $6bn highway project that you’re working on that’s swaths a pathway through a series of inner-city suburbs has kindly delivered a small parkland encompassed with a short cycle path. Unfortunately, no cycle access to or from the park has been incorporated and most of the local residents do not own bikes.
  • Every second week you have to run the gauntlet of sausage sizzles and cake stalls in which absconded employees are desperately trying to raise funds for a cancer charity that only the CEO has a person connection with.

What’s the common theme across all of these? The intention is there, the impact isn’t.

While it’s nice to see that most organisations are integrating some level of environmental impact mitigation into their BAU processes, the approach to optimising the social impact of products and operations is still very much in its infancy. In fact, the ‘social’ element of the triple bottom line has taken a somewhat mirror image path to its environmental cousin in that the organisational buy-in is often present, but a strategic execution is not.

As a Sustainability Consultant it’s my job to help organisations maximise their positive impact, which includes the impact they have on the people and communities in which they operate. But when I sit down with a Sustainability Manager or a Community Manager and ask them about the rationale behind some of their existing social impact programs, I usually get back one of three responses;

  1. This is the way it’s always been, we’ve had a relationship with this charity for years.
  2. We leave it to our staff or store to decide how they give or who they give to.
  3. We’re simply complying with the requirements of our development contract.

In most instances, this creates an outcome in which the real social impact of the program is unknown or poorly communicated back to the organisation, or worse it is non-existent in that it fails to meet the needs of the beneficiary it intends to help.

If this sounds like your organisation or project, do not fear as below I’ve outlined….

Edge’s Four Step Guide to Maximising Your Social Impact

  1. Map and review your existing social/community initiatives

The first step in adopting a more strategic approach to driving social impact is to map your existing activities according to the social and strategic business value they create. The matrix below outlines the four key quadrants across which they could sit.

Employee led: This quadrant consists of the more traditional social impact programs, usually involving small donations or grants, fundraising, collection of goods and volunteering hours being committed by the Corporate’s employees in support of a cause, often health or local community focused. The main driver for this is employee engagement, with many employees expecting some form of corporate giving program.

Given that the structure is based on giving ‘a little bit to a lot’ the cumulative social impact of these programs can be small or at least very hard to measure.

Stakeholder led: These are programs where the main intent is to achieve social impact, even if it isn’t necessarily in the business’ interest. This is usually in response to a particularly acute event or issue, such as the recent drought relief support by big supermarkets.

Business led:These are partnerships where commercial or other business value is the primary aim. Typically, these are Corporate sponsorships, where brand and marketing value is the main objective. An example of this might be the Westpac Rescue Helicopter

Share value: ‘Shared Value’ was very much the buzz word of the social impact scene a few years ago but its intent still rings true. Essentially it is where the core business of an organisation is used to help solve a social or environmental issue. These are usually typified by long term strategic relationships between corporates and not-for-profits such as Woolworth’s relationship with Ozharvest, or Bupa’s relationship with Dementia Australia. Success of these programs is in both the community and business interest.

If you’re a medium to large organisation it is likely that you will have a smattering of social impact programs across all of these quadrants. This is not bad, but it is important to have a weighting towards the top right quadrant. Once you’ve mapped these out you will be able to ask some hard questions of each program; is this program providing us the level of strategic return we require? Is there any way we can remodel our programs to shift further toward the top right of the quadrant? Are we in fact focussing on the most pertinent social issues?

  1. Define the social causes that are material to your organisation

If you haven’t done it already, it is vital that you have a clear understanding of the social causes/issues that could have a material impact on your organisation. This is crucial in defining exactly what would define ‘shared value’. For example, drawing on the example above, it is clear that Bupa has identified Dementia Research and Prevention as a social issue that is material to their stakeholder and their bottom line.

There are two main ways that you can do this. A Materiality Review Process will help identify those social issues that are important to your stakeholders as well as those that could have a significant impact on your organisation’s bottom line. For large infrastructure projects, it is vital that a detailed Social Needs Assessmentis completed to ensure you have a clear understanding of what the community actually needs, rather than making assumptions based on contractual requirements or even a Social Impact Assessments, which rarely uses first hand stakeholder data.

Insights from this process should be used to inform your Social Impact Framework which is a strategic tool to help articulate how your organisations will create and measure your social impact (the details of which will be discussed later in a separate blog).

  1. Be clear what you need from a long-term not-for-profit partnership

If you identify an organisation that supports a cause that is material to your organisation, like any relationship, it is important that you set up the ground-rules of interaction from the start. This may involve outlining a set of requirements such as reporting on fund distribution, provision of beneficiary stories or provision of skilled volunteering opportunities. For larger organisations a detailed Partnership Strategycan be helpful in setting out these ground rules across multiple partnerships. This will make reporting easier and provide a greater breadth of interactions.

  1. Implement a consistent approach to reporting across your stakeholder group

Business models that consist of a diverse set of stakeholders (such as a franchise model or wholesaler model) can find it hard to develop a consistent voice or focus area to articulate their collective social impact. This is often the case with community-based businesses, which want to support local causes. In these instances, it’s important to set up a structured grant program in which each store or stakeholder group is required to adhere to a set of reporting processes to ensure the mother company can tell a consistent story. A great example of this is the Bendigo Bank Community Grant Program which provides by step process for all their branches to follow, from cause selection through to reporting.

The important thing to remember is that maximising the impact of your social program spend is a journeywhich will be refined over time. Following these steps will help get you on the way.

If you need some assistance in navigating your social impact journey, feel free to reach out for a chat anytime. Contact Max at

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