The nature of impact work is one that, I suspect, will never have one resounding ‘it’s 100% perfect’ or ‘it’s a complete, irrefutable waste of time’ moment where everyone within a sector agrees. In that way, it completely mirrors the facts and figures that are presented by a business/ NGO, or other (hereon simply referred to as ‘business’), whereby that business knows exactly why their figures look a certain way but they simultaneously know that not everyone will quite understand the ins and outs of the situation, even though many of those external readers would like to voice an opinion about it. This is far from saying that external stakeholders, or for that matter internal, should not have their views. In fact, it is with those other perspectives that reports and direction and impact can continually evolve toward a state of improvement, thus the work, due to that feedback, can hold more gravitas and, therefore, the business can make more of an impact.
The theory behind measuring impact is that through accurate data and metrics a business can assess whether they have achieved their aims and objectives. This is important as a business because they are able to illustrate what they are doing, why they have done it in a certain way, whether what they have been doing has been achieved and whether their focus area has gained the benefits that they desired for it. The value of developing an impact report is also that it can enable strategy through uniformed policy and can allow for a consistent voice for advocacy efforts. It can also lead to credibility in reports produced after the original and the things that the business says. A last note on this is that the advantages of having an assessment tool are that it allows for ongoing introspection and self-evaluation and it can provide an up to the minute snapshot for the business.
I recently compiled, with the help of my colleagues, an impact report for the social business I am consulting for, Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India. Reflecting on this creation, being able to articulate the aforementioned reasons as to why an impact report is valuable, is extremely useful. However, on an industry-wide note, it is also challenging, time-consuming and can be a general burden upon businesses, due to resource availability. For example, not every small business has my skills and experience at hand to utilise as their own. Added to this some benefits are difficult to quantify as a whole.
For the small Bangalore based startup, I created a system, based on input into a spreadsheet from sales of the business’s zero waste products in relation to desk research data on how many equivalent units of plastic were used each day per person (global average) and in relation to the saving of plastic waste diverted from landfill based on desk research from the weight of a plastic product equivalent compared to sales of a zero-waste product’s life (we capped the length of life at 5 years), to gain results thus measuring impact. Additionally, I implemented, within the system, data capturing components to understand how much impact had been made due to educational programs that the business has run for the three years of operation. This is the report, in brief, it functions perfectly for the business’s needs and I need not elaborate further. For this article though, on a further note, I would like to explore, briefly, two terms that I have touched on here, impact and awareness.
The entire concept of ‘impact’ is one that within sectors, such as the development sector, needs to be understood by employees in relation to their business to help ensure that aims and objectives are met. Yet, impact, really? How can longitudinal impacts be articulated? How are environmental externalities taken into account? How do businesses articulate the impact that they can not, necessarily, see on an excel spreadsheet? What on earth is impact anyway? In lay man's terms, and I am trying to simply not use synonyms here, it is to show the amount of difference being made. From point a to point b. From point a to point d, e, f and w, x, y and z. Simple? Of course, it is not. It is profoundly difficult and is one of the benefits of not having those resounding 100% yes or 100% no answers that I spoke of in the opening paragraph. It allows for continual improvement as long as the business is willing to embrace feedback and continue to evolve. This is particularly important for businesses that desire to have a social purpose, such as Bare Necessities who want to benefit the environment on top of simply selling a product.
Similarly, awareness is vitally important to making a difference for a social business, or any other business really. For instance, if people are more aware of a car you are selling then there is a higher chance that more will be sold. Or, if more people are aware of the plastic waste crisis more zero-waste products will be sold and more environmentally conscious choices will be made. However, there is not, and I doubt there ever will be, a way to successfully say that everyone in an educational program will utilise the information. Leaving it in a simple position of, if a person has attended then they are more aware is far less complicated, and therefore should be used. Exploring anything further would be similar to trying to explain the impact of a Disney movie that 500 people saw at the same time, some people would speak to more people about it and others would speak about it less. Thus, simplification for awareness and impact is easiest and allows the business to not require a PhD student for every question that arises. Resources for small business, and large as well, are not always, or perhaps I should say often, available for this type of exploration.
As I have mentioned, impact and impact reports are inherently difficult to produce. Yet, they are often needed. But they are resource and expertise straining. Yet, how does a business know what it is doing without one? There is no complete right or wrong. There is no 100% either way. I see a lot of value in impact reports, and yet has produced a report that required many hours of work know that the resource side of the debate is one that warrants articulation. I have no answers here, instead, I’d like you to think about ways that a system like this could be improved for everyone within a sector, whether they are small businesses or large, for-profit or not for profit. It could be a positive for entire industries if such formats were standardised. This could help with synergies with other businesses working on the same Sustainable Development Goals, for example, and standardisation could inform policy and advocacy efforts as a whole.
Since there is not, this Impact Report for Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India is the team’s personal assessment. Some of the impact is longitudinal of course, and cannot be articulated succinctly. How that could be placed onto an excel spreadsheet, then a report in the future will be an interesting topic to explore for another day. Keeping it simple has allowed for results to be produced, valuable results that highlight that the business has diverted 94, 129 kilograms of plastic waste from landfill, for instance. Having seen all of this, I would encourage everyone to continue thinking of ways to simplify when looking at impact instead of complicating, in our continual efforts to make a difference.