On Wednesday evening, we hosted the first of our Dark Matter of Funding sessions, this one on impact — how we measure it, what it’s own impacts are, and even, in this complex, emergent and increasingly unpredictable world, what impact even means, and whether it’s a useful frame.
Joining the conversation with Indy (who provided thoughtful yet probing questions), were Deputy CEO of Social Investment Business and Associate Lecturer at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, Gen (Genevieve) Maitland Hudson, and Kieron Boyle, CEO of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation and Co-Founder of Impact on Urban Health. We recorded the session, which you can find in its entirety here, and have briefly summarised some of the key issues Gen, Kieron and Indy explored below.
Gen started the conversation by delving into what it means to be a ‘realist’ when it comes to impact, drawing on the ideas of Raymond Geuss. Fundamentally, she said, this involves being honest with ourselves about the impact of what we do, being aware of the ideological structures that underlie how we consider and enact impact, and deconstructing impact to avoid being deceived by our own work. Rather than making “high-minded moral descriptions” of the value of our work, we should instead strive for local, narrow claims — for instance, is the way we distribute finance broadly equitable?
Kieron took a different approach to impact in his opening remarks, suggesting that while impact may indeed sometimes be overstated, even very small impacts can have a huge impact on peoples’ everyday lives. He described impact as multi-layered, understandable first at the level of the individual initiative; second in terms of the collective impact of a cohort of projects; and third at the level of the system itself.
One very important issue that arose during the discussion was the role of power within the measurement of impact, given the asymmetric relationship Indy posited was inherent within impact. For Kieron, dealing with power in the context of funding is about learning how to share power within broader, perhaps inequitable, structures created elsewhere. For Gen, on the other hand, she felt more strongly that the “extractive model of impact” — one involving capital purchasing units of impact — was “deeply abhorrent” and “troubling.” Arguing that this approach was fundamentally not ‘realist,’ she proposed it has a disempowering effect because it centres the responsibility for social change upon the smallest possible scale actor despite those self-same actors having the smallest degree of control over the system they are seeking to change.
Other topics addressed during the course of the hour included:
- The question of goals — whether new ways are needed of holding goals, or whether the goal model itself requires rethinking, given the complexity and entanglement of reality;
- Worldbuilding and the legitimacy of metrics — who constructs those metrics, their flexibility over time and space, and the value of strategic ambiguity;
- The difficulty of building movements against inequality in a world where work is increasingly precarious, distributed and dispersed;
- The value of using the power of markets to effect change that couldn’t otherwise be achieved by philanthropy alone
- The question of who holds risk, and how — including the risk of complexity inertia leading to inaction, and this being even worse than the risk of acting.