Rethinking the Impact Spectrum

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

A friend recently asked me advice related to an organization where she’s on the Board.

The organization targets at-risk teens to develop healthier lifestyle practices, develop confidence and become more independent. My friend joined because she believed in the cause, their innovative methodologies and the success of their programming to date. She also joined because she saw the massive potential for making their model more efficient, streamlined and scalable in order to affect thousands more people.

She’s been on the board for over a year and has participated in several board meetings. She was invited to offer her expertise, specifically in business and financial modeling, but when she offers her advice it isn’t heeded or appreciated. When she proposes new organizational models to get to scale, the Executive Director hedges and says “not now.”

Sound familiar to anyone? It’s probably not a new issue that the ED and the Board member might not see eye to eye, and that the ED might resist growing faster than they deem realistic. But as I asked more questions, it seemed there was something else at play.

They had a fundamentally different idea of what the organization’s ultimate impact could and should be.

At the end of the day, the ED wanted to stay firmly involved in all the programming and to keep their programming local and small-scale. He envisioned his organization affecting a maximum of 200 people. In the Board member’s mind, 50,000 people could be served if they rethought how they delivered their work, redesigned their financial model on a per participant basis and sought to influence national policy. They faced a fundamental difference of opinion in what “scale” looked like and where they wanted the organization to go.

Four Levels of Impact

What does it mean for an organization to “maximize impact?” Maximizing impact can be a difficult thing for even the most seasoned organizations to articulate and it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to different organizations. Certain organizations may choose to measure their impact in terms of scale, focusing on answering these questions: How many people did you affect, and how deeply? How fast are you growing? How many dollars per person were invested in this particular intervention?

Others may choose to optimize the level of influence on broader systems and behaviors they are creating. Relevant impact questions can include: Have you made the problem go away temporarily, or forever? Have you created local empowerment or dependence on your model? Have you set in motion new behaviors, norms, values and incentives in the system that renders your model unneeded over time? Are you shifting the fundamental paradigm and ideas around what people build their lifestyle and daily choices around?

It is perfectly acceptable for an organization to focus on just a few of these questions rather than all. The most important thing is to have a strategic vision for where they are focusing their impact.

Ashoka has developed a framework called the “Four Levels of Impact” summarized here:

1. Direct Service

  • Work in populations needing services, food, and/or a direct benefit to their wellbeing. Direct service has a clear and concrete feedback loop – you can see hungry people being fed; students are gaining skills and confidence through mentorship; or the clients getting legal help.
  • Examples: Soup kitchens, small-scale mentoring programs for students, legal services for community members

2. Scaled Direct Service

  • Models that unlock efficiency and impact through well-managed logistics of an intervention or solution. Scaled Direct Service benefits large numbers of individuals.
  • Examples:The Red Cross, Americorps, or large-scale refugee resettlement programs.

3. Systems Change

  • A new model that is addressing the root cause of a problem. It often involves policy change, widespread adoption of a specific methodology by leading organizations in a sector, or creates new behaviors within an existing market or ecosystem.
  • Examples: Micro-credit was a fundamentally new innovation for women to lift themselves out of poverty. B-Corporations rethink corporate responsibility. Wikipedia democratizes the way information is shared online.

4. Framework Change

  • Framework Change affects individual mindsets at a large scale, which will ultimately change behaviors across society as a whole. While Framework Change is not a specific field-level or country-level intervention, it compounds the work of many individual organizations to create a paradigm shift.
  • Examples: Universal Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Democracy, or the idea of Social Entrepreneurship.


Finding Your Fit in the Impact Spectrum

This Impact Spectrum is not an impact hierarchy. Framework Change is not better than Direct Service, it just operates at a different, more meta level of changing people’s world views, beliefs, and ultimately, behaviors. We need the difficult and important work to happen at each of these levels to comprehensively address the myriad of complex social problems around us. The power of this tool is in defining the roles and approaches that individual organizations can take while also providing a roadmap for complementary approaches across organizations.

Not only is it important for organizations to understand where in this spectrum of impact they operate, but there must also be more conversation and a better understanding of the different levels of impact across all stakeholders in the social change sector.

Educators can share this spectrum of options to help students explore what kinds of social impact are most meaningful to them. Often getting experience in direct service is critical to understanding the core daily realities on the ground, while analyzing the system can be a great research project for some of their classes. In many cases, students should explore internships with organizations operating in different levels, and read case studies of organizations that are highly effective and impactful across the board to understand what most resonates with them.

Employers can search for employees that are committed to their missions and the kind of impact that the organization is seeking to achieve. The skillsets that are needed for organizations will differ depending on the level of impact you’re working on. Direct service sometimes requires deep content expertise in an issue, scaled direct service organizations might need MBA’s to help with managing the organizational and budget scale they deal with, systems change often needs more analytical and conceptual thinkers and framework change needs excellent communicators who can share new paradigms at scale with influencers like policymakers and the media.

Funders should ensure that their expectation of impact is aligned with the organizations they are funding, and vice versa. Finding out later in the relationship can be difficult for both sides. Ensuring that reporting and metrics of impact are targeted at the right level of analysis is key. It’s impossible to compare a direct service organization with a systems changing organization because it is easy to count those directly affected while prevention and influence are often tricky indicators of success to get credit for accurately.

Individuals should appropriately allocate their precious time, money and expertise as a volunteer, employee or board member of a social change organization. Being clear about what kind of impact drives you will be key to align with the vision of the organization and its leader. This should be just as important to include in your due diligence as the issue area and overall effectiveness of the organization (which are necessary but not sufficient for a full fit).

Finally, a good way to for any stakeholder to get clarity around an organization’s impact is to ask: “Why are you doing this? What impact are you trying to achieve?” The answer to these deep questions will be a clear indicator for which level they operate in.

A New Vision of Impact

This new framing of impact is intended to help individuals and organizations waste less time on misalignment of strategy, goals and success metrics. By increasing our understanding of the four levels of impact, and working as an aligned team-of-teams, just imagine how fast we could move on solving the greatest challenges of our time.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared on our Ashoka U blog.