As some of you may know, I spend most of my time surrounded by brilliant, creative and innovative people who work within the realm of community change. World Changers, I like to call them.
*You can find a ton of them at Innovation Works in London, Ontario – go check it out! You won’t regret it 😉
I have always been passionate about this type of work – the kind of work that creates positive change — the kind of work that aims to make the world a better place. In the few years that I have spent in this field of work I have discovered that one of the most popular topics of conversation is the topic of impact.
Supporters want more, more, more, skeptics want proof that it even exists and investors & funders want to see the quantifiable results now.
Impact is everything.
But what exactly is impact? Is it quantifiable? Or is it the stories that we tell? Is it simply a “change”? An improvement? Does it have to be widespread? Can it be small? Does it have to affect a certain amount of people, places or things? Can it affect just one person, one place or one moment in time? Is it something you can see, our count or measure? Or is it just a feeling?
Previously, if someone had asked me to define “impact” I might have said something along the lines of “an effect”.
… how insightful…
In reality impact is so much more than an “effect”. My trusty online friend dictionary.com defines impact as follows:
“the striking of one thing against another; forceful contact; collision”
“the force exerted by a new idea, concept, technology or ideology”
Looking up these definitions was a great reminder that impact isn’t something simple or superficial – it is bold, it is a force,
it is striking, it is something exerted unto the world and it does not happen autonomously – there is always some kind of connection or rippling effect that exists when impact occurs.
I think now having thought more in-depth about impact, I might define it as a force that changes the way we view the world and the way that we exist within it.
So why do I think this is something worth discussing with you fine folks? Well, statistically speaking…
- There are over 170 000 charitable and nonprofit organizations in Canada
- Two million of Canadians are employed in the charitable and nonprofit sector
- Over 13 million people volunteer for charities and nonprofits
The most recent research shows that 82% of Canadians made financial donations to a charitable or nonprofit organization and 44% of Canadians 15 and older volunteered their time. 1.96 billion hours were devoted, the equivalent of approximately 1 million full time jobs (Imagine Canada, Spotlight on Canadians).
Or in other words – people spend a lot of time, money and resources within the realm of community change. And how do we determine where exactly we should invest our time, money or resources? The answer: where we know impact will follow.
But impact, my friends, is a tricky, tricky thing.
In order to maintain support, not-for-profit organizations must prove their benefit to society. For some organizations, their benefit to society is more obvious and easier to extract than others. Take for example the Food Bank. In my city – London, Ontario – there are over 8000 children living in poverty – this means that over 8000 children are at risk of going hungry. The Food Bank ensures that children and families who are dealing with financial struggles have access to food. We need food to live and it is culturally unacceptable to allow a child to starve, regardless of their socioeconomic status. And so, the Food Bank has value, it benefits our society, and we observe that impact when the statistics from the number of children and families accessing the food bank is released each month.
For some organizations, however, their benefit to society is less ‘in-your-face’ obvious. Take for example a community organization that provides youth development programs such as Girls Groups. We could argue that this type of program promotes self-respect, confidence, emotional strength and empowerment that could improve quality of life in our communities – and anyone involved in youth development will understand this impact.
This impact may not take effect today or tomorrow – but in the long run we will see that through mentorship, support and education, the majority of the girls taking part in Girls Groups will alter the way that they view the world and the way that they exist within it. The impact presents itself as the pursuit of goals, health and well-being and becoming productive & active members of society. This in turn causes a ripple effect into other areas of society. But, as mentioned, this may not happen today or tomorrow, so how does the rest of the community see the impact that this program provides. And how can essential programs like these gain support from the community as well?
This brings us back to my initial questions about impact – What exactly is impact? Is it quantifiable? Or is it the stories that we tell? Is it simply a “change”? An improvement? Does it have to be widespread? Can it be small? Does it have to affect a certain amount of people, places or things? Can it affect just one person, one place or one moment in time? Is it something you can see, our count or measure? Or is it just a feeling?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason it is so difficult for us to discuss impact, and to see and understand impact is because our expectations for it are simply unrealistic. We live in a culture that expects immediate results – we have become impatient and distrustful and so many people seem to have lost the ability to imagine potential in the future.
This is confusing to me for this reason – we are constantly told that “good things come to those who wait” or that “anything worth having is worth waiting for”. Is it that we so easily forget these lessons about patience? Or is it inherent in us to fight this assumed passivity?
Imagine you plan to plant a garden but you have no money so you ask a person in your community for seeds, soil and water. You tell them that you will plant these seeds in good soil, where they will get just the right amount of sun and warmth and you will water them and care for them and one day they will turn into a beautiful garden.
The neighbour comes back the next day, and sees nothing but dirt and you tell them, be patient, the flowers will come.
The neighbour comes back the next week, and sees only dirt, with a little growth, and you tell him again, be patient, the flowers will come.
But the neighbour grows impatient and doesn’t return. They lose interest in your garden and refuse to give you any more seeds, soil or water. The tiny pieces of green life that would have grown into flowers eventually begin to whither away.
You ask someone else if they would be willing to help you and they ask you, well what will this garden look like? You paint a beautiful picture with your words, explaining the breathtaking beauty of the garden – but this is not enough. They can’t see this image the way you can and they say you have no proof that this garden will be beautiful – all they see are the remains of what was left when the first person stopped helping you.
We hear a story like this and we know that had the first person just been patient and waited, a beautiful garden would have appeared. Had the second person just trusted in your vision, a beautiful garden would have appeared.
This is the struggle that many World Changers face. Maybe an organization won’t find grand results tomorrow, or this month, or even this year. But our community needs to trust that with the right support and resources, the impact will surface. As a community we need to remember that with seeds, the right amount of sunlight and water, gardens will grow – and imagine how much beauty these gardens could add to our worlds.
Impact does not comply with our expectations of immediate, tangible results. Sometimes impact happens slowly, quietly – and one day you look around and your world is filled with vivid colours, beauty, and feelings of warmth and happiness. It is filled with life, and you’ll feel it suddenly – that bold force, that change in our world, that thing we call impact.
But remember … anything worth having is worth waiting for.