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Social Impact Strategy: Expert Advice and Key Insights

Discover eight best practices for creating a social impact strategy from four industry experts.

Social Impact Strategy: Expert Advice and Key Insights

Discover eight best practices for creating a social impact strategy from four industry experts.

Published 05-25-23

Submitted by Submittable

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In a keynote at one of PEAK's Grantmaking annual conference, LaTosha Brown asked the audience to envision a world without racism, reminding us that “nothing has been brought into the physical world that was not first envisioned.”

Substantial and sustainable change requires a strong vision; a vision defined and achieved through strategy. For organizations pursuing social good, social impact strategy encompasses the goals, actions, and assessment used to enact and measure positive change.

Transformation takes time and it takes a village—and the creation of strategy is no different. Luckily, four social impact experts are here to bolster your efforts: Alnoor Ebrahim, Kristin Kenney, Jerome Tennille, and Mark Horoszowski. We’re pleased and grateful to bring you their insights on the significance of a strategic approach, as well as industry best practices for creating a social impact strategy that’s valuable and lasting.

The benefits of social impact strategy

You’ve probably heard of “putting the cart before the horse” or “getting ahead of yourself.” Conventional wisdom tells us that to meet goals, order of operations matters and strategic planning (mixed with patience) is a must. To achieve positive social change specifically, here’s why strategy is so important:

Maximize impact 

Alnoor Ebrahim is the author of Measuring Social Change: Performance and Accountability in a Complex World. He is also a Professor of Management at Tufts University, and he co-chairs an executive education program at the Harvard Kennedy School for the Schwab Foundation’s social entrepreneurs.

“In the social sector, we tend to think a lot about impact but don’t necessarily give enough attention to strategy—and the two are completely intertwined,” Ebrahim says.

This connection is clarified by a high-level definition of strategy.

“Strategy is how an organization seeks to achieve long-term performance. So the operative words there are ‘long-term,’ because social change takes time, and ‘how.’ If we can get clarity for social change organizations on their endgame (that’s the long-term performance) and how they’re seeking to get there, then that becomes really critical to figuring out how to assess social impact.”

Establishing a strategy requires planning for measurement, measurement that is necessary for anyone seeking to amplify impact. Otherwise, “we might measure the wrong things, or we might measure the right kind of things but not actually know how to get to our end goals.”

Meet the moment

Kristin Kenney is Senior Associate at Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, a purpose agency for organizations and brands whose mission is social impact beyond profit. She has a degree in Journalism from Cal Poly, where she was a founding member of the University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (a Submittable customer you can read more about here).

As Kenney observes, both current events and consumer priorities make impact strategy vital.

“Because we have a climate crisis, companies are realizing that environmental impact is increasingly important—it’s something they are essentially mandated to address these days. And there is a push for them to consider the social aspect as well.”

“This includes looking at how they’re treating all of their stakeholders, from their employees to their customers to the communities where they operate, including people who may not be directly connected to the business but are impacted in some way just because that company exists.”

In addition to environmental and social mandates in every industry, customers these days demand that organizations prioritize social impact and plan accordingly.

“Consumers are much more savvy today. They’re asking, how are employees treated? Where are products coming from? Who are products made by? And they’re really good at research. They’re looking it up to see whether Pepsi, for example, is actually doing what they say they’re doing.”

Effectively collaborate to meet goals

Jerome Tennille is Manager of Social Impact & Volunteerism at Marriott and a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) professional designing Social Good programming for companies seeking to serve communities where they do business.

“If you push aside any philosophical ideas about why you should serve the community, I think having a social impact strategy, at its core, allows you to focus your efforts towards specific goals.”

As Tenille observes, meeting goals is only possible with active coordination and teamwork.

“It’s sort of like a rowing team, right? You want to be rowing in the same direction at the same cadence and a strategy allows you to do that.

Social impact strategy allows you to have done all the purposeful work to really understand what you’re trying to achieve and all the different variables that might influence your being able to achieve those things. And then also all the different factors that might actually help or become barriers in your achieving the goals that you’ve created for yourself.”

Grow and sustain your business

Mark Horoszowski is the CEO at MovingWorlds, a social enterprise that helps companies scale their social impact programs by engaging employees. Horoszowski is also an RSA Fellow and a founding adjunct faculty member and lecturer on Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Washington Tacoma.

“Social impact strategy says ‘let’s take capitalism, one of the greatest forces that we have developed as humans, and use it in a way that isn’t depleting the environment, propagating inequalities, or funding injustices.’ The business case for more sustainable and equitable operations is resoundingly clear. If the social, health, and environmental crises of this past year are not enough to compel business leaders, then leaders need to hear this: You need a social impact strategy not just to do some good, but to remain relevant and competitive.”

And it’s not even just doing good and addressing global issues—Horoszowski notes that “social impact is actually the biggest business of our time” and he identifies several reasons having an impact strategy is a business imperative:

  • It contributes to the global economy so more money can be made. It also diversifies the supply chain, “so companies can function and lower their costs over time”
  • Employees demand it: “If you want to compete, you have to stand for something that really awakens people so employees understand how their contributions are going to make a difference.”
  • It provides innovation opportunities from “new business models to new consumer groups,” and thus protects against competition by helping “keep you from getting out-innovated”

How to build your social impact strategy

Broadly speaking, social impact is the effect actions have on people and communities—at Submittable, we understand social impact as the effort to create public value that is systematic, sustainable, and innovative.

The eight following expert suggestions can ensure your organization’s social impact projects are well-organized, strongly executed, and clearly measurable.

1. Ask foundational questions

According to Alnoor Ebrahim, “any leader of a social change organization needs to answer three fundamental questions in order to get clarity on their strategy.”

What do we seek to achieve?

Ebrahim identifies this as a value proposition. “It’s an obvious question, right? But when we get caught up in the day-to-day work of social change, we sometimes forget to ask it… And we need to ask it periodically to make sure that our work is still driven and connected to that end goal. It’s more specific than mission because it asks you to be specific about the needs you’re trying to address and who your most important clients are.”

How will we bring about change?

In the language of strategy, this is your social change model. “We’ve got a whole set of tools to help with this—Theory of Change is one, Logic Model is another—but we need to understand how that work fits into a bigger picture of our system and of our society. So we understand exactly how we’re bringing about that change, what factors we can reasonably control, and where we need to partner with others to bring about systemic change.”

How will we hold our feet to the fire?

This question is about accountability. “We need to ask: what are we accountable for (that we can actually measure) and to whom are we primarily accountable—because different client groups, different beneficiaries, different donors, different members of your own organization might actually answer those questions differently. Nonprofits tend to want to be accountable to everyone for everything. But that’s not often possible, so you have to prioritize. Strategy requires making choices about what you will do and what you won’t do.

2. Invest enough time

Kristin Kenney advises companies building a social impact strategy to give themselves time for the process.

“You could write down a purpose statement and say ‘we’re going to donate to this nonprofit’ and call it a day, but that’s not going to perform over time. It’s not going to produce significant returns for society or for the business. The process is important—you can’t rush it. It is a soul-searching discovery process.”

She identifies vital steps to approaching this corporate strategy:

  • Talk to people at all levels of the organization, from customers to external stakeholders, and “ask a series of questions like, what are your greatest assets? Where do you need to improve? What have you done in the past?”
  • Self-assess (or seek an external audit). For brands, Kenney says, “I look closely at their materials to see, for example, how they talk about themselves, what they’ve done in the past, how customers are talking about them.”
  • Research competitors and peers. “You obviously don’t want to do the same thing that your direct competitors are doing, but you may be in the same issue area. So how can you do something differently or maybe better?”
  • Explore general issue areas and resources. “What kind of issues could you have an impact on? And what are the greatest needs?”

“It’s putting all those pieces together that really gives you the direction for your purpose and your programs. And taking on that longer process will get you to a better place to be creative, build a program, and bring it to life.”

3. Canvas your community

The development of a smart impact strategy, according to Jerome Tenille, requires thorough assessment of community needs at the appropriate level.

Take inventory of the communities where you do business and align goals with things that are larger than yourself. If you’re a local company, connect with local governance and small community-based organizations to really figure out those critical issues they’re trying to solve.

“If you’re a regional or state-based company, take that one level up and connect with the state. They’re going to understand the socio-economic climate better than you are as a company.

“If you’re a national or global company, then elevate that again. If you’re a global company, you might look towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to determine where you fit strategically and then how that cascades down to the local markets because every local market is going to be different.”

Acting without a strong grasp on key issues can endanger your strategy and lessen your impact, especially if you’re working to solve problems you don’t understand.

“I think companies are almost hard-wired to take action before they actually understand the real reasons for action.”

Tenille ties this observation back to personal experience.

“When I was in the military, we did an exercise before we would deploy to understand things like terrain, geography, weather impacts on our ability to conduct operations in an area, different nuances of culture and religion, geo-political dynamics within a region … Once you have the full picture, then you're like, Okay, now I can start operating. For companies to do that in their local communities, they need a similar process for taking an inventory of their communities before they act.”

4. Choose an assessment framework

As Mark Horoszowski suggests, selecting and implementing an established system for assessing your social impact programs is key to a good strategy.

“I think one of the important best practices is to pick a framework that you’re going to measure against AND set real targets.”

Specifically, Horoszowski recommends exploring the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Benefit Corporation (B-Corps).

Regardless of the system you choose, he advises organizations to “not overdesign their measurement processes upfront, but rather pick a vital few targets that are measurable and really indicative of meaningful social impact.”

Especially with trickier metrics and partner relationships, an established framework (and the included measurement resources) can be extremely useful. “Good measurement is something that our partners struggle with the most. It’s easy, for example, to measure volunteer hours and donations, but it’s harder to measure the impact of those hours. The innovative organizations are starting with innovative and meaningful targets.”

“What a good framework does is help you actually answer questions like what, how, and why do we measure? Once it is in place, it empowers your team to build more executive support by showing your impact, and also building the case for them to keep investing to hit those targets.”

5. Be authentic

When it comes to social impact, authenticity is nonnegotiable for Kristin Kenney.

“A good social impact strategy has to be authentic. And by that I mean it has to be something that intrinsically links to a company in some way, whether that’s the company’s heritage or what they actually offer the world.”

Kenney makes the distinction between organizations established to specifically pursue positive social change and those with other diverse goals that nevertheless achieve social impact.

You have companies founded with social impact at their core like TOMS or Warby Parker. Patagonia has always been about protecting the environment, so that’s a very clear case of ‘this is why we exist.’ But you have other companies like Unilever who are incredibly purpose-driven where, one, it’s a huge company, and two, it may be a lot less clear to determine ‘what is our actual purpose’ and ‘why is it authentic?’”

Ensuring your strategy lines up with brand values and mission requires more than just talk. 

“It’s really easy to write a purpose statement but if you can’t back it up as well then it’s not authentic. For Unilever, their purpose is making sustainable living commonplace. And they do that with a growing portfolio of products that are purpose-led and are designed to reduce environmental impact and/or improve the lives of people. With their soaps, for example, they have handwashing programs in developing countries.”

6. Ensure alignment and consensus 

Like Kenney, Jerome Tennille notes the importance of brand alignment, in addition to ensuring that all stakeholders are committed to working towards the same goals.

With brand, community, and customer alignment, it’s easier to understand how you’re going to achieve your strategy, especially when you have the capital and the backing of employees.”

In order to put your strategy into action, consensus is key.

One of the keys to implementation is building consensus. You need the C-Suite to become executive champions of your program—these are going to be the people who essentially sign onto the goals and approve the goals. You need them to say ‘You’ve got my support. And by the way, I’m going to hold other people and myself accountable to these goals that might be public.’”

This consensus improves accountability and lends itself to the development of transparency.

“Once you have the buy-in and all the sign-offs internally, that’s when you’re able to communicate your strategy internally and publicly. And as you’re doing that, you’re achieving a few different things: transparency to employees, transparency to the public which adds its own form of accountability, and then you’re also able to sell your social impact program or strategy as its own internal brand.”

7. Distinguish your approach

According to Horoszowski, a social impact strategy may look different depending on who’s implementing it.

“For the executive level, it’s crucial to assign ownership on key metrics, set clear targets that are mapped to SDGs, and empower managers throughout the company to be able to move on meeting target goals. These metrics must have some teeth.”

“As an example, for Apple’s CEO and Starbucks' CEO, part of their compensation is now tied to their achievement of sustainability targets.”

For the CSR practitioner, strategy should center around two considerations: (1) doing more good and (2) doing less harm.

“We make this distinction for social impact leadership: you’re either doing more good or you’re doing less harm. And you actually have to do both.”

To do more good: “Make your products accessible, donate more, and get employees to volunteer.”

To do less harm: “Emit less carbon, make sure you’re not propagating pay inequities, remove bias from your organization with structured interview and promotion processes, for example.”

8. Measure with clarity and focus

For Alnoor Ebrahim, getting clarity around strategy requires identifying what you can reasonably measure.

There’s a tendency within the social sector—whether it’s nonprofits or foundations or businesses with a social purpose—to try and measure long-term outcomes on society.

This tendency can lead organizations to focus on outcomes that don’t necessarily make sense for their work. Ebrahim gives the example of an ambulance service.

“We know, for example, that in a cardiac event such as a heart attack, if the ambulance responds and administers quality care within nine to twelve minutes, chances of patients survival go way up. If they take much longer than that, chances of survival really plummet. But what can you reasonably measure? You would measure response time and quality of care. You would not measure health outcomes because it would be beyond the capacity of the organization and is beyond its strategy. Leaders must be clear about what they can reasonably measure and take credit for, given the strategy of their organization.”

Ebrahim has identified four unique strategies for social change. The ambulance service is an example of a niche strategy, which is very focused and allows you to quickly measure social impact results in the short term.

The other strategies (integrated strategy, emergent strategy, and ecosystem strategy) involve varying types of interventions, key players, and levels of complexity. You can learn more about these strategies here. Organizations can also transition from one strategy to another and be high performing regardless of the strategy type they choose.

Assemble a strategy for the future

Building a social impact strategy to help your organization make a bigger impact, meet the moment, collaborate seamlessly, and enhance financial performance takes time and attention. And clearly, the investment in these resources is worth the outcome, especially in times of crisis.

As Kristin Kenney observes regarding 2020, “companies that had a program and purpose in place were able to respond much more quickly and authentically.” 

Not only does an established strategy enhance responsiveness—a good strategy should also, as Jerome Tennille observes, “allow flexibility and nimbleness.”

“In crisis, strategy doesn’t have to change. Operations and tactics change. I think if a strategy has to change that dramatically where you’re readjusting your goals and you’re rethinking almost everything, then there’s a chance that strategy wasn’t impermeable.”

For those looking to create a modern, future-proofed social impact strategy that guides the management of top-notch programs—including corporate giving, CSR, grants, and employee volunteerism—Submittable’s cloud-based social impact platform is a winning solution. We’d love to partner with you to maximize social good and create lasting change through smart technology—find out more today.

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Submittable is a growing social impact platform used by thousands of companies, governments, and philanthropic organizations to manage their social impact programs and maximize their impact.

Submittable has helped big and small organizations worldwide run 134,000 programs and collect nearly 22 million applications to date, and is backed by Accel-KKR, Next Coast Ventures, True Ventures, Next Frontier Capital, StepStone Group and a few other amazing investors.

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