If you’re a passionate agent of social change, it can be difficult to know if your work is having the intended impact. Yet understanding the nuances of what actually effects change can make a difference in your career satisfaction and sense of purpose.
Let’s dig into what impact really means so you can craft your career around what the world needs most and what fulfills you personally.
A primer on organizational impact
First, it’s important to understand the nature of social and/or environmental impact in general. One of the best tools for this is called a "theory of change," a tool that has been used for many years to highlight the exact changes intended by a product or service as well as an outline for how those changes will be measured. The Center for Theory of Change describes a theory of change (ToC) as:
“...a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or ‘filling in’ what has been described as the ‘missing middle’ between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place...for the goals to occur.”
In other words, the ToC for a particular organization identifies the outcome you want to achieve and how the intervention (the product or service) you’re offering will achieve it. In the social-impact space, a ToC is one of the best ways to understand what is driving the organization and how it makes strategic decisions.
If an organization has a theory of change, you’ll encounter it in a variety of places; for example, you might see a simple version in an annual report, on a website, or in presentations about what the organization does. An organization may also ascribe to globally-focused standards of impact to guide its work and therefore use a theory of change framework like these Sustainable Development Goals.
If you’re interviewing for a new job, ask where you can find the ToC or a definition of impact. If the organization doesn’t have one, or if the interviewer doesn’t know for sure, you can learn a lot by asking a follow-up question such as “What are the indicators you use to measure your impact?” If the response doesn’t include several of the elements of success above, or you hear something like “we know it when we see it,” carefully consider if this response is sufficient for you.
Three ways to define the personal impact you want to make
Now that you know how to look at organizational impact, you can turn to what this means to you personally as you craft your career. Here are three ways to consider your personal impact:
- Individual change: Do you enjoy interacting one-on-one with others? Do you find it exciting to support an individual in realizing personal transformation (such as financial stability, health, or a high school diploma)? If so, consider roles where you are able to build personal relationships with those who are using your organization’s product or service. Look at jobs like an Employment Placement Specialist at YearUp or a case manager with Lantern Community Services.
- Systems-level change: On the other hand, if you are more likely to enjoy uncovering and removing barriers in a complex system, identifying why an intervention is breaking down and trouble-shooting solutions, or digging into research on the broad implications of an intervention, you’re likely on the systems-level end of the spectrum. Look for jobs in policy, advocacy, or strategy (for example, these Center for Science in the Public Interest roles or United Neighborhood Houses’ policy and advocacy director role).
- Breadth or depth of impact: Look for roles where the impact you’ll have is aligned with what you value more: reach of intervention or depth of interaction. For example, if the organization’s success is based on how many people use their product or service, efficiency of distribution will be a high priority. If instead, the organization’s intervention is made transformational by the depth of interactions, then relationship-building and engagement will be key.
Overall, checking in with your values is a good place to start exploring the mark you’d like to make on the world. Then you can combine what you value with your areas of expertise to find the right type of role for you.
It’s not enough to just “do good”
To be a savvy social-impact professional, it’s important to familiarize yourself with how organizations in your field of interest define and measure their impact. Not only can this help you get your organization where it wants to be in terms of mission, but it can enhance your own ability to find roles that you find personally meaningful. Most importantly, it elevates the conversation about what you do from simply “good things” to describing the exact influence your work has on the world.
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