Social impact and mission myopia

Image Credit: Sam Catchesides

The origin of this post first came out of reading Marketing Myopia, a Harvard Business Review classic from 1960, for my MBA Venture Analysis course. But the theme comes up over and over again for me. Good drill bit companies don’t sell drill bits, they sell holes.

Focus on the purpose, not the product.

An aside: Yesterday was the final day of the third core course in the Certificate in Dialogue and Civic Engagement program I’m taking. The course, Citizens Engaging Citizens: Issues and Practices, was facilitated by Charles Dobson, author of The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action and The Citizen’s Handbook, both great resources for social changey types, especially Canadian ones.

Part of our work today revolved around ideas that people had for citizen to citizen engagement in their own lives. We were outlining goals, objectives/campaigns, strategies, tactics and actions. The hard part was the objectives bit.

People were often inclined to describe a project output (product) as an objective. For example, “the objective of this project is to create a community asset map/hold a conference for animal rights activists/make Trina chocolate cupcakes.”

However, the true objectives were often related to a change in attitude, a change in relationships, a change in state: some sort of social impact.

Social impact ≠ output

Social impact does not occur because a video gets produced, an art project is implemented, a conference happens, or Trina gets her chocolate cupcakes. Social impact occurs and is measurable because change happens.

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, measuring success is a check box. Did the the conference happen? Check. Did the asset map get created? Pat on the back. Did the resource get published? Can I has some more funding puleez? Did Trina get her cupcakes? Where are my bloody cupcakes?

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, they risk becoming irrelevant to their clients. Times change. People change. Needs change. Focusing on the output, the program, the product, is what I call mission myopia: Losing sight of what is really important, and not adapting to the needs of your clients.

Does your organization sell drill bits, or holes?

Instead of the product, think of the need of your clients, your community, that you are satisfying. If you want to create a community asset map because you want to increase community connectivity (which would be important to define before you get going, btw), success should not be defined by the creation of the map.

I would challenge the above in this manner:

  1. If you created the map, but community connectivity didn’t increase, would that be success?
  2. If you increased community connectivity, but the map didn’t get done, would that be success?

Organizations that sell holes would agree with #2.

Practical Implications for the BC Society Act

Making sure your organization defines itself by its clients’ interests rather than a specific program description is incredibly important when writing out the purpose of the organization in your consitution as a part of registering under the Act. If your purpose is related to selling drill bits instead of selling holes, you may find yourself operating outside of the realm of your constitution as times change in the future. Find out more about appropriate purposes in Appendix A of Information for Incorporation of a British Columbia Society (pdf).

Read more on social impact

Other Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance articles on social impact: