Getting Our Arms Around Social Impact Investing

Developing relationships requires being present

I have been a member of a volunteer Think Tank since 2007 that is wrestling with a lot of complex issues related to exploring new methods of delivering service through Rotary in a meaningful and sustainable manner with the ultimate goal of eradicating poverty.

A statement which I wrote at the beginning of my involvement in this was “Think Big, Stay Focused” since we were dreaming of changing/impacting the world. Since then several sayings that have been helpful to me are to remember also include: “You eat an elephant one bite at a time”, and “Pick the low hanging fruit.”

I am currently in the process of writing a “Lessons Learned” book which will describe many of the experiences and lessons that we encountered during this process, and there are many articles and presentations written about the work we are doing that I will reference as we go along.

The purpose of this particular series of articles is to process and interconnect the work of the Think Tank and a class that some of us from the group are taking from Acumen called “Making Sense of Social Impact: Acumen’s Building Blocks for Impact Analysis.” There are nine of us taking the class as a cohort, each week; we get our lessons and study materials from Acumen, work on our own to prepare for the class doing homework and then we meet weekly for four weeks. At the end of each lab or cohort class, we write a report and submit that report to +Acumen so that we can receive our certificate at the end of the class.

As I was writing my report I realized that many of the concepts and thoughts I was reflecting on and writing about relate directly to the work that I am doing in my professional life and so will post my reports and thoughts about Social Impact here. Enjoy, ask questions, and send feedback. I invite vibrant discussion!

Making Sense of Social Impact Report from Lab 1

Our group is a volunteer, committed, think tank that has been working on new models of delivering service through Rotary in a meaningful and sustainable manner following emerging concepts and ideas resulting from the introduction of “The End of Poverty, the UN Millennium Project and then subsequent study, activities and research.

We know very clearly what we do not want, after seeing years of our strategic priorities imposed upon others, “doing” project to others, and not engaging the community on which we were focusing in the planning, implementation and evaluation. We have seen millions of dollars thrown at projects that made us feel good when we created them, but ultimately, were not grounded in true sustainability. What we don’t want is often used as a baseline to describe what we are doing although we have created a vision and goals; they are ever evolving as we learn more and engage new partnerships complete with new sets of lessons learned.

    1. One of the first lessons learned is to develop a common set of definitions to describe our visions, dreams and ideas and that is one of the goals for this class: our group will work to develop some common definitions to better describe the breadth, depth and focus of the work in which we are engaged and the concepts we will define include:
    • Capacity Building
    • Sustainable

And then – what are we evaluating (evaluation measures) when looking at

    • Breadth of Impact;
    • Scope of Impact and
    • Focus of Impact

Several aha’s from the class this week included:

    1. Each “partner/group” needs to come to the table with their own set of goals and visions and then work together to explore and define the intersection of those visions on which they will move forward together. Developing a common set of goals where within the intersection does not mean letting go of each individual set of goals, but enhances and strengthens the partners’ goals.
    1. Each individual brings to the table their own perspective and frame about how we are measuring success and all are important and need to be acknowledged and captured; understanding that some successes support the individual partners’ goals and some demonstrate successes of the intersection.
    1. Capacity building is the foundation of sustainability. We need to get very clear about the components of capacity building that are driving the sustainability of the project because both concepts are often mis-represented and mis-used.
    1. Several of the key components of capacity building include:
    • Being detached to outcome;
    • Supporting resources, tools and skill development for empowerment of the focus community;
    • Patience to give time and opportunities for the focus community to learn, develop and practice new skills for empowerment and sustainability;
    • Creating choices and opportunities in a manner that supports dignity, and does not undermine established empowerment;
    • Developing relationships by being present;
    • Coming to agreement as a group about timelines and evaluation measures;
    • Delivering, engaging in and creating resources, skills and tools that can be left behind and continue after the interventionists are gone
    1. This is complex and difficult work and there are no easy fixes; even listing the components implies simplicity, which would not be accurate – each component is a study within itself.
    1. We are on the right track, there are huge successes and extremely important lessons learned that we have captured, now the task is sifting through the seven years of work and sharing the stories in ways that are meaningful, replicable and sustainable.
    1. There is much left to be done. Just because we are seven years down the road and have achieved a high level of success, this is our time to continue to press forward and this class provides a great foundation to do just that.

As a group we came to consensus about tabling what to “name” ourselves. The initiative with which we have been engaged needs a more clear identity and it is hoped that through the course of this study we will be able to determine a name that best describes our work.

No big conclusion here, lots of work left to be done and yet, there are many committed, talented people prepared and ready to do so – can’t wait for next week.

Useful Group Exercise

After our lab class watched the video of Sasha Dichter about Acumen’s investment model, our group was asked to share a little about what social impact meant to us and when we had experienced/learned about it. We are a diverse group with a broad perspective of life and educational experiences and although we are all focused on the topic that drew us together, we each described our first experiences of observing social impact. Interestingly, our perspectives covered the gamut of the 3 parts of social impact; breadth, depth and focus.

From storytelling, school-based learning and the beginning stages of volunteer engagement – all of us shared what social impact meant to us and how we learned about it. I can’t wait to plot each of the experiences and stories into a chart of the 3 parts and start looking at that (I am a visual learner).

For organizations and groups that are beginning to talk about social impact; the lives reached, jobs created, the impact on the lives being served, and increases in well-being – a great “get-to-know-you” exercise is to watch the Acumen video , reflect and then share your experiences. This exercise helped me understand the framework from which each participant drew upon. Of course, the best thing you could do is to register for the class the next time it is offered, but until then – enjoy the lessons learned of those of us who are currently participating.

For me this contributed to the greatest ah-ha moment: an understanding about why it is so hard to capture the impact in one or two sentences – there are so many measures (successes) within each of the components of social impact, that coming to a common understanding and definition of the components of the framework and then charting those successes within the framework – will create a broader impact understanding; first among our group, and then the greater community.

I look forward to your input and feedback on what social impact investing means to you and when/how you first learned about it… comments? This is the first in a series of four articles on international capacity building.

Respectfully submitted – Kathy Stutzman

To contact Kathy:


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