By Ruth Dearnley, Managing Director (Principal Consultant)
Part of my role at Influence Global is understanding barriers. We work with you to see the problem and highlight ways to change your outcomes. Do you know what’s stopping progress?
To better understand the barriers to social change faced by purpose-driven businesses Influence Global has spoken with a diverse range of organisations this year.
Together their insights provide a pragmatic snapshot of the industry in Australia. It’s not an academic piece of research - the issues are real and specific, helping identify and better understand the barriers faced in achieving social change outcomes.
As a collaborative and learning oriented organisation, we’re sharing some of the core insights we’ve seen so far, to help inform your work.
“We can’t measure it”
One of the most common concerns for organisations we spoke with was their ability to measure progress towards change and return on investment. Without this, they told us, they can’t always prove the importance of the work they’re doing - or the impact that it’s having.
Much of the concern for needing measurement stemmed from a need to legitimise certain areas of work, to ensure future resources. Often this was the driver of effort, rather than trying to understand the efficiency or effectiveness of efforts. For many, the areas that are ‘too hard’ to measure have been sustained because they are seen as core to what the organisation does. But with reduced resources and increasing competition, sustainability concerns are rising. As one respondent said, “what we chose to measure is a reflection of our values”, emphasising how critical it is to measure efforts to achieve social change outcomes if it is to be maintained at the heart of the organisation.
The extent of the values versus resource challenge varied, depending on the organisational focus. Advocacy was commonly identified. As one respondent said,
“We can’t measure our direct contribution to change, so we favour attribution…. which is seen as less impactful”.
Some organisations say they rely on assumptions of what worked in the past instead of actually identifying how change occurred.
For organisations focused on preventative interventions - from health promotion to rights-based abuses - measuring prevention was deemed near-impossible. In some areas, it was possible to focus on shifts in percentage of population affected over time; this was still only possible in the long-term, and didn’t easily allow for quarterly or annual progress measures.
It’s also evident that measurement challenges closely align with a variety of other blockers to achieving outcomes.
A lack of clear purpose, mission and mandate means that ‘success’ is hard to benchmark, let alone measure. A lack of sustained focus and a fluctuation in commitment to issues stems from and fuels uncertainty in the relevance and effectiveness of the work. For some organisations there is an inherent cultural belief that their efforts are worthwhile, without considering the impact. As one respondent stated, there is a need to shift thinking from “the belief that passion is enough” to ‘meaningful impact is the only thing that is good enough’.
“We are not focused”
All organisations we spoke to recognised that achieving meaningful social change required a long-term commitment. Yet many highlighted a lack of focus over time. The drivers for this were varied, but there were distinct commonalities, including:
- a lack of organisational (and sectoral) clarity about their purpose and what they were ultimately trying to achieve
- organisational leadership not appropriately equipped or experienced to understand how to achieve social change outcomes
- a market driven approach to:
- securing funding and finding available donors (and adjusting operational responses accordingly), rather than prioritising the services they wanted to deliver
- public engagement approaches, prioritising fundraising and quick returns over more challenging structural change
- responding to public interest, including letting strategy and operations be led by media appetites; and jumping between issues to sustain supporter interest.
Many respondents associated the lack of commitment with an inability for organisations – and particularly leadership – to understand the value of maintaining focus on an issue over time.
“There is a perception that creating ‘noise’ and awareness is the focus, not systems change” said one respondent, articulating the frustration of many senior staff interviewed who felt that attention was misplaced without the appropriate commitment to sustainable social change.
Without clear strategic direction appropriate to both business development goals and social change outcomes, it’s easy see how operational direction can get steered by external drivers. However, this is counterintuitive not only to achieving the change the organisation seeks to address, but also for sustaining public support.
‘Compassion fatigue’ is at an all-time high. Audiences are bombarded with multiple issues, messages and asks. Ensuring clarity of focus and aligning calls to action (ideally amongst like-minded organisations), is critical to getting cut-through for an issue.
What organisations can do differently
There is no one single way to address barriers to achieving social outcomes. Context is key and the approach must be tailored accordingly. But organisations should consider these goals:
- Set strategy and work plans to achieve milestones, not just end goals and social change outcomes.
Whilst many organisations acknowledge the importance of milestones – or interim outcomes – they are not always clearly articulated. This contributes to difficulties in identifying and communicating progress. Influence Global’s IOIOI Framework focuses on breaking down the multiple levels at which progress towards change can be observed. Contact us to find out how the Framework can assist in designing and delivering measurable strategies and work plans.
- Mainstream social change outcomes within internal business processes - such as Board and Director-level KPIs - so they become business as usual.
This will ensure organisations stay on target for as long as required to make meaningful change.
- Extend planning cycles beyond 12-month work plans, so that systemic shifts requiring longer-term commitments can be realised.
This allows for incremental progress measurement on (at least) an annual basis, as well as more forward-thinking strategic approaches to achieving change
- Overcome the fear of losing the supporter base.
Challenge the market-driven public engagement approach by maintaining (and shifting) the narrative on priority issues. Organisations can set the agenda and shape the debate. This is best achieved when supported by a robust (and measurable) theory of change.
- Build Board and leadership capacity to appropriately understand and implement organisational strategic directions that prioritise achieving systemic social change.
In doing so, organisations will be better supported and equipped to implement sustainable strategies, plans and measurement frameworks that are outcomes driven.
And this is not the end. We know challenges are constantly evolving, and we’ll continue to work to understand and address them, to ensure we can be responsive to the needs of the social change sector.
Thanks to our valued partners for sharing their concerns, insights and time over the past year. If you would like to know more about this work, please get in touch.