We are exploring the concept, “Evidence of Impact,” to understand how businesses serving the poor are contributing to achieving the SDGs. As a thought leader in impact investing and social entrepreneurship, what is the mainstream “impact measurement” world doing right?
I often hear those newer to our work (our work being both managing mission driven capital investment and the creation of mission driven, inclusive organizations—whether for-profit, non-profit or hybrid!) state we need more and better metrics. One such newcomer, Bono of the band U2, even claimed there was too much “fuzzy thinking” in the metrics space, which I suppose reflects more on his journey than our own.
In truth, our approach to metrics (financial, environmental and social) has—and will continue to!—evolve over many decades. We should recognise it was only with the creation of the EPA in 1970 that U.S. firms began to track and report on environmental performance, mainly to comply with new regulations concerning pollution standards, but in the process laying the foundation for today’s environmental reporting practices.
While “metrics” has been an issue in the non-profit sector for decades, it has really only been in the last 20 years or so that we’ve begun tracking and reporting on social impact in any formalised manner beyond simply counting clients served and what have you. If you step back to consider where we are, we’ve actually come quite far in a relatively short period. This is the “what we’re doing good” part—we now have a robust field of practice with diverse actors and frameworks, some of which complement and some of which conflict, but all of which make up a universe of practice we could only have imagined several decades ago.
Today initiatives such as SASB, The Impact Management Project, The Integrated Reporting Initiative, IRIS+ and the good work of the Inclusive Business Action Network bring together a host of approaches and frameworks to help guide our work. This will only continue and is to be celebrated—and in fact, is being celebrated to the point where three recent Nobel awards were given to economists working on these very issues!
All that said, we need to recognise metrics are only as good as the integrity of the data going into their calculation and the degree to which we understand their purpose. We need to understand our intent:
- Are metrics being used to assess the efficacy of a given impact strategy?
- To improve the performance of a firm at the enterprise level?
- To justify the investment of philanthropic or market-rate capital?
- To help us understand a dynamic venture, a diverse portfolio of capital, or a public policy strategy?
Our challenge is that the state of practice in each of the above areas differs and how we make use of those metrics will differ as well depending upon the context in which we seek to apply metrics to better understand our work.
And that is good!
Are you wary of any of the trends you are currently observing in the impact measurement space?
I believe we need to be cautious of the temptation toward reductionism—the idea that it is helpful to promote a single metric of SROI (social return on investment) or the equivalent of an “impact earnings per share.” The last thing we need is a single metric or some impact equivalent of financial metrics that then becomes the one hammer we have to turn every opportunity into a nail! Our approach to metrics should draw from a host of diverse tools and frameworks that are as nuanced as the organizations and challenges before us. We need to continue to refine, develop, and standardise our application of metrics toward common taxonomy and definitions; and ours will always be an evolving process.
Are we achieving the SDGs? What evidence do you have of this?
I don’t think we’ve even really begun the work in which we need to engage.
To begin with, you have some folks in our community who think we’re doing great—that the human condition and our prospects have never been better. See the work of Pinker, Rolling and others. And in some ways, of course, they are right—literally hundreds of millions of the world’s poor have been lifted out of poverty and the rate of infant mortality is the lowest in our world’s history. That said, others of us would argue we have a very significant way to go on any number of fronts and, in fact, we are at risk of losing our future entirely when one considers the climate crisis and challenges associated with the rise of the Anthropocene.
Furthermore, I’m not actually sure the SDGs themselves should be our measure of success. They are extremely broad goals and more categories of framing our challenge than specific objectives to be pursued. While great for framing a discussion, this also means they are susceptible to misuse. For example, we’ve seen massive adoption of impact investing by large, trillion-dollar firms of finance while those same firms continue financing the vehicles of our climate destruction and the massive concentration of wealth we’ve witnessed over recent years. The contributions and involvement in impact investing of these firms are nothing relative to the capital they invest in the destruction of our communities, families and eco-systems. Yet many of these same firms claim to be impact investors as well as promoters of the SDGs.
It is important for us to be directionally moving toward a shared, general framework such as that offered by the SDGs. We just have to be careful not to confuse the goal with actual progress on the ground. As the Polish Linguist Alfred Korzybski so accurately observed in 1933, “The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing...”. As is true of our general efforts to track and assess “progress” using the tool of metrics, when it comes to the SDGs we need to keep in mind they are simply general goals and not the end result we seek.
In your most recent book, The Purpose of Capital: Elements of Impact, Financial Flows and Natural Being, you explore the idea that with increased focus on the How of impact investing, we are fundamentally missing the Why. Could you tell us more?
In some ways the book’s point is simply the danger Korzybski points to in his comment above: Too many of us—myself included—are subject to believing our tool is the task and that by having a great strategy, a great organization, and an expert team using solid metrics to guide their work, somehow all this is the same as changing the world, advancing positive impact and getting where we need to go. Having co-authored/edited seven books exploring how to do our work and having directly and indirectly advised ultra-high net worth families on how to deploy billions of dollars of investment capital, I realised much of our shared challenge is that we assume we’re all in the game for the same reasons or driven by the same general set of motivations when, of course, we are not. When you understand this, the Why becomes more important than the How, in that we actually know how to do much of what we’re called to do—we just aren’t quite sure why we’re doing it and need to sit more deeply with that question.
For the social entrepreneurs reading this, what is the most important take-away from your book?
My central message is that of Mutual Impact; the idea that if we really want to change the world, we must, by definition, change our selves. When we talk about impact, we usually mean impact upon something outside our selves—a community problem or environmental issue—impact as something we act upon, something we do to someone else or the Earth.
Yet, the greatest opportunity we have in this life is in many ways not what we do to others but what we might transform in our selves—in how we understand the value of our lives, the nature of our own living legacy. Being open to this notion of personal transformation through “doing the work” isn’t something we discuss very often, but how we lead, how we think about the nature of inclusivity, how we come to be healed in the process of attempting to heal others and the Planet; these are in the end perhaps the most profound opportunities we might experience in the course of living and in the process of engaging in our work.
What the book does is offer a moment to step back, reflect and contemplate not only what we want to do in the world but why it is worth doing and how both of those sit within the larger flow of human and environmental experience.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are focused on making an impact?
As Ghandi said, ultimately what we do in this life is insignificant—and it is absolutely critical we do it! In my experience, by taking this approach and operating within this mindset you become liberated to act as we are called to act, to be more fully humble and present in the process of our work while seeing how that work is part of a much deeper flow of humanity’s efforts to understand, contribute and transcend whatever we feel holds us back from final success.
Is there anything you would still like to add?
We have become quite serious over the years. Our work can often feel like a weight we carry in the face of climate destruction, rising nationalism, the challenge of managing inclusive businesses in today’s changing contexts and a host of other, very real challenges…
Which is why I am pleased to share a music video, produced by my 25-year old niece, Jackie, which is a companion to the book The Purpose of Capital. Her work reminded me that the most important thing we must remember is that we are now alive and engaged and creating the future we seek today—each day—and so we must remember this:
Celebrate the Struggle!