An Urgent Warning about "Impact"

By Rich Harwood The watchword for community change nowadays is "impact." This little, two-syllable word seemingly insinuates itself into every discussion about change. In doing so, it has redirected everyone's attention, but not always in the right direction. If we're not careful, we'll lose sight of our most precious mission: to help people transform their lives and build stronger communities.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for "impact." Who isn't? I've spoken before hundreds of funders at an Aspen Forum for Community Solutions conference, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic, engaged in various roundtables and webinars, and developed thousands of "public innovators" to create collective change in communities across the U.S. and overseas. But the impact of this seemingly little word is not always so productive or positive.

My experience working with people in communities, with foundation leaders, with various national initiatives, and with a variety of others is that the deifying of this word has produced a cascading effect of collective responses that endanger our mission. Consider the kind of discussion that ensues when we all start to talk about impact:

  • Our frame instantly becomes that of metrics and measurement – in other words "data."
  • We then lunge toward enlisting large numbers of professionals and organizations to sit around a table and develop the right answers to whatever the data tell us.
  • Then we generate committees and workgroups and initiatives to implement the answers.
  • Our focus is then transfixed on the mechanics of managing all of these moving parts.

On the surface, nothing I've written sounds blatantly wrong. And as I've travelled the country, I have become convinced – indeed, moved – that those of us engaged in this work are excited about it because we so deeply want change. We believe that we, as a society, can do better. We have come to the conclusion that only by working together can we build stronger and more resilient communities and lives.

But the notion of "impact" can drive and distort our mindset and behaviors in ways I doubt most of us either intend or want.

The word immediately drives us to focus on data, activity and the mechanics of change. In the process, we can lose sight of the actual pain and suffering of people in our communities. We can forget that people not only want to alleviate their pain, but they also hold aspirations to move their lives forward.

We can get so lost in the mechanics that we fail to actually build different community relationships, norms and practices that change how a community works together – not just now, but in the future. We can wholly buy in to our own plans and initiatives without paying attention to how change truly occurs in communities.

The idea of impact can cast a spell over us. It shapes what we do and say. But if we want to create impact – to help people transform their lives and build stronger communities – we'll need to break this spell.

Let’s make sure that in our quest for impact we keep communities and the people who live in them as our reference points.