In Social Impact, Is Impact a Bad Word?
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social, social impact, what is social impact

I just came across a really interesting piece in Pioneer Post – a UK-based blog about everything residing in the intersection of social, business and nonprofit – in which SROI CEO Jeremy Nicholls, who is heavily involved in social impact projects, discusses his uneasiness around the word “impact.”

In his article, he cites the shift of discourse in the social work space from value to impact as a violent one, and one in which agency is inherently stripped from those meant to be receiving “impactful” “help.” He notes, however, that this is of course an unintentional and unmalicious fixation but one that requires understanding and attention nonetheless; a moment to pause and think about what we are saying and how this initiates or regresses change sought.

Wait, what is the real meaning of social impact?

It feels a bit strange writing this from a blog called “Track Impact,” but discussion surrounding how we use the word “impact” in the social impact sphere is deeply interesting. Within nonprofit/social enterprise work, the way which we talk about our actions warrants reconsiderations.

As previously mentioned, Nicholls argues the word “impact” is violent, conjuring up images of forcefulness and permanent indentation – as in the destructive results of a meteor colliding with the earth, or a car with a wall. Increasing use of the word without complimentary qualifiers, such as the market or nonmarket value of the activities and services you engage in, perpetuates the very power structure most organizations attempt to diminish. Impact, he says, is measured from an organization’s perspective, while value must be reported by the receiver’s perception. 

“Words are important”

He writes, “Words are important. And the language of impact reinforces the problem we are trying to address: of inequality of power.   Impact is about those with power having an ‘impact’ on those who don’t; who become recipients, not involved in the activities, not informing them, and certainly not owning them. It is inherently disempowering.”

I am certainly intrigued by the possibilities the word “impact” has in the development community. I find this very similar to discussions in development and other social science fields, in which agency, power structure, “white man’s burden” and construed notions of “charity” are center pieces of theoretical discussion.

Whether these concepts have any considerable influence on the way organizations operate – or if anyone truly cares, as long as people are being helped – is negligible. I agree with Nicholls that is of extreme importance to be cognizant and considerate of the words perpetuated into use.

What do you think? Is “impact” a bad word? Should we speak more of value or perhaps returns?

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