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Over the past few months regular readers will have realised that there are certain themes to these posts. I talk a lot about participation. I talk about concepts that sit within systems thinking and complexity; and I’ve now added access to the list.

These four ideas form the core of what it means to be working in social impact today. Let me explain:

  • Participation: the old notions of ‘doing good’ and charity included an assumption that the person who was doing good or the charity itself was inherently providing a impact for service users or beneficiaries. Behind this assumption has hidden years of no or low impact, sometimes a negative impact. Charity was something that you had done to you. Beneficiaries were not considered to be able to participate in determining their own future. That changed (in the UK at least) when the assumption of doing good was removed and the social impact sector was opened up to social enterprises and other structural forms of intervention. We now know effective interventions are those that include beneficiaries in their design and delivery. People are often better at articulating what they need and have clear ideas (not always your ideas) about how services can be delivered.
  • Complexity: It was my early work in international development that alerted me to the benefits of understanding and working in a complex-aware manner. as much as some social scientists might wish, neat causal chains rarely explain the deep intractable issues that most social impact organisations are dealing with. Complexity assumes that the issues that you see in front of you every day are symptomatic of a number of different causes that might not even appear related. At the same time, this means that while your organisation might work in one specific field, you won’t be able to claim 100% of the positive impact that your beneficiaries experience. After all, yours is not the only organisation working with your beneficiaries and you cannot know whether something that someone else did has unintentionally or intentionally allowed your beneficiary to fully experience the intervention that you have designed.
  • Systems thinking: this field of study is having an increasing influence in the social impact sector. The systems thinking approaches put the stakeholder at the centre of everything, from design to delivery to governance. By stakeholder I don’t just mean beneficiary, but anyone or any organisation that is assessed to have an important role in the intervention. This can sometimes be challenging for those involved, but leads to better designed, owned and implemented interventions and more sustainable outcomes. NOTE: systems thinking is not the same as working systemically, but can be effectively used to create system-level change (that could be another whole series of blogs).
  • Access: last week I spoke about using access in your programme design. Access is a lot like systems thinking (and may end up as a sub-set of such approaches) and seeks to emphasise the role of the beneficiary in intervention or service design and delivery. Importantly, access is also a policy issue. You can use an access lens to illustrate how the successes you have achieved in your work can be scaled to deliver wider public benefit. Notions of access also underline approaches to social impact and service design and delivery: who has access, and at what cost? These two seemingly straightforward questions mask significant ideological battles going on in the UK today.

To effectively deliver positive social impact you need to be working across these four concepts and understand how collaborate and share your work with the communities that you’re trying to help. As space for civil society continues to shrink and the UK state continues to exclude local structures from any sort of meaningful decision making, being able to confidently and articulately make the case for your social impact will become ever more important.


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