Photo by Mo Manklang
From corporate responsibility and traditional philanthropy to impact investing and social enterprise and everything in between, the social impact landscape is broad and varied. That breadth is both a valuable attribute and its most daunting challenge.
That’s what we gathered from Generocity’s first shareholder breakfast, where over a dozen community leaders came together to discuss the current state of the social impact scene in Philadelphia, how it’s changing and how to make it better and more efficient.
Before a community can become better and more efficient, though, there needs to be clarity surrounding the people and organizations that comprise it and a shared understanding of the language they use to communicate.
“The word ‘impact’ means something different to everybody,” said Garrett Melby, cofounder of social enterprise and nonprofit accelerator GoodCompany Ventures. That ambiguity in terminology, he said, has created challenges for the social impact space. Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII), for example, refrains from attempting to define what “social impact” means at all.
Melby said he sees the community living at the convergence of “philanthropy and entrepreneurial strategy” — a confluence he said creates an opportunity to create new hybrid solutions for old problems.
“Spending time together as a group and having a schema for what fits into which bucket is going to be valuable,” he said.
Yet when there’s little consensus on the definition of a term you choose to label yourself as, there might be a problem with that label.
“It’s such a squishy word. It’s quick to alienate some people,” said Dermot Murphy, an associate at impact investing fund Halloran Philanthropies. “You can really divide a room on the intentionality of [how you define] it.”
Does impact carry fiscal connotations, social connotations — or both?
The concern was shared by many, including investor John Moore of impact investment firm Investors’ Circle Philadelphia. Striking a balance between fiscal and social return is familiar stomping ground for IC Philadelphia, the most active chapter of impact angels across IC’s national network.
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“We have debates within our group and with entrepreneurs and other people we work with about how profit is good,” Moore said. “How you balance the company, its impact and its revenue generation is tricky for the companies we deal with because they’re trying to do both [balance fiscal and social impact] at the same time.”
There’s an opportunity for nonprofits to learn from businesses that can successfully strike that balance, and there are those in the philanthropic sector, such as Karin Copeland of the Arts & Business Council, who expressed intent to rope more of the business community into what Melby called the social impact “tent.”
What can nonprofits learn from enterprise about better generating revenue? Likewise, what can enterprise learn from nonprofits about better maximizing social return? Moore said defining the pillars that support the social impact tent will help establish the parameters for those working within it.
“It’s about taking the best of different worlds and [learning from] what they do well,” he said. “[We’re trying] to put various stakes in the ground so that people can understand what this is, how they fit into it and why it’s important.”
Right now, there are people who aren’t sure whether or not they even belong in the tent, let alone know their role within it.
“We’re all in this tent, but our heads are down,” said Dawn McDougall, executive director at civic hacking collective Code for Philly. “At the same time, do I self-identify as social impact?”