How systems thinking is reinvigorating the science of social impact

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How systems thinking is reinvigorating the science of social impact

Written by Ross Wyatt | 25th February 2021

Part I: The attribution myth, outcomes as a list and other social impact tales

I’ve been thinking a lot about systems lately. Especially regenerative systems. Regenerative systems thinking is not limited to things like forests and natural ecology. Regenerative systems apply equally to people, families and communities.

I blame my late-night systems-induced wakefulness on Carol Sandford, the quite brilliant author of The Regenerative Business and The Regenerative Life. Some time ago I attended one of her online masterclasses and it would be fair to say I have looked at the world a little differently ever since. Thinking in systems is not always easy to grasp or explain – but I’m going to try to illustrate it in a few simple examples which will hopefully challenge the way you think about social impact.

The attribution myth

Having been a social impact practitioner for many years now, I have participated in numerous conversations and workshops where the question of attribution is debated. That is, just how much of the impact experienced by a beneficiary stakeholder (don’t you love that term?) can be attributed to a given program or activity.

To illustrate what I am calling the attribution myth, take this fictitious (but based on reality) and slightly simplistic example:

Let’s say we are looking at a program to support people coming out of the prison system. We do this by matching clients with mentors and supporting them into dignified employment. Our intended impact is to reduce recidivism (the tendency to reoffend). In Australia the actual recidivism rate (percentage returning to prison within two years) is a whopping 46 per cent. In our (fictitious) program, let’s say we find that only 30 per cent reoffend. To what do we attribute the reduction? Was it all down to our program? What about the role of clients' employers? Or their parole officers? Their families? Their friends? Or their own choices?

Typically, a social impact approach might seek to estimate a percentage attribution to each – not a bad way to approach it, but not the only way.

Another approach might see the program, the employee, the parole officer, the family, the friends and the client working as a regenerative system. If one aspect is missing, or working out of sync with the others, then the whole system can fail. In this way every aspect can be considered to be 100 per cent attributable to the outcome!

Outcomes as a list

Most examinations of social impact frequently result in a list of outcomes to which a program or set of activities contributes. At best, we see some sort of sequence – preliminary outcomes, intermediate outcomes and ultimate outcomes – or some variation on that theme. Far less thought is given to the interplay of the outcomes – how do they work as a system rather than just a sequence?

At Think Impact, we have been examining this issue for some time and are finding some fascinating interplays and co-dependencies in outcome systems. One particularly useful approach has been what we call 'Enduring impact'. We are finding that when people experience intrinsic outcomes (what goes on inside, for example, confidence and self-esteem), combined with extrinsic outcomes (how we are connected to others, through things like belonging or peer support) AND functional outcomes (such as skills, access and knowledge) then enduring wellbeing is more likely. If one of the critical sides of the triangle falls short, then the whole outcomes system is weakened.

So if you are a social impact practitioner, or someone seeking to articulate the impact of your program, policy or activity, take some time to see the whole system, understand its essence and work towards maximising the potential of the system. Don’t just see the parts.

Part II to come: Essence, wholes and potential in social impact