Purpose and Accountability: The Carrot and Stick of Social Impact

Social entrepreneurs are about more than making money. We have loftier goals than mainstream, profit-maximizing business organizations—and that sense of purpose is powerful.

New hires are attracted by purpose. Leading investors demand purpose. Purpose brings teams of diverse people together. It’s an essential part of leadership, culture, and storytelling, especially in times of crisis. Purpose sits at the heart of strong brands—brands that are authentic, valuable, inspiring, and distinctive. Purpose invites us on an adventure, like a voyage of discovery. The promise of a possible future better than our present is the carrot that entices us toward progress.

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.  Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.” – Søren Kierkegaard

If purpose is the carrot, accountability is the stick, and sometimes it is literally a measuring stick. Purpose without accountability disappoints, eventually. Purpose without accountability gets in the way of people making a real difference. Purpose without accountability stops precious time and attention from going to places where the need is more urgent.

To cultivate impact, social entrepreneurs need carrots and sticks.

Social entrepreneurs need the carrot and the stick—a clear purpose and a clear framework of accountability. Successfully combining purpose and accountability requires three distinct capacities which, if mastered, will elevate the chance that a social entrepreneur will ‘make a difference that makes a difference.’

Study and learn from social and historical context. Purpose without accountability appropriates and commoditizes the language and culture of different social struggles without ‘paying dues.’ Purpose with accountability means humbly and appreciatively engaging people who live with the consequences of the problems we’re trying to address, and recognizing them as experts in their own experience. “Apprentice with a problem,” advises Daniela Papi-Thornton, and take time to understand it before ‘innovating in a vacuum.’

Good strategy doesn’t happen by accident.

Identify the chain of events that will result from action. Purpose without accountability gets lucky and says, “I meant to do that!” Purpose with accountability means developing and sharing a Theory of Change or similar explanation of exactly how and why we think our approach will actually bring power to the powerless, benefit the disadvantaged, or repair what is broken. Social entrepreneurs must call the shot before they take it! This capacity helps them to know where to look for feedback and changes—both positive and negative—which in turn helps reduce exposure to risk not just for themselves, but for those who might bear the unintended consequences of their work. Our client ORS Impact publishes some of the best available guidance on developing a Theory of Change.

Validate chosen measurement approaches. Purpose without accountability does ‘decision-based evidence-making,’ and makes post hoc observations that support a case for impact. Purpose with accountability takes a measurement approach that follows the seven Principles of Social Value—especially the third principle to “value things that matter,” as informed by stakeholder preferences.

A stakeholder-centric approach is essential for an organization’s purpose to be meaningful. The Demonstrating Value framework is a good, flexible approach for small and growing social enterprises. The B Impact Assessment (and B Corp Certification) can be a useful benchmark for consumer brands. Individual programs and initiatives may be well-served by the Social Return on Investment (SROI) method. Organizations looking to develop comprehensive reports may use formal measurement and reporting frameworks like Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), or the emerging Reporting 3.0 approach. There are great options to fit organizations of any size and purpose.

Do you know your organization’s purpose? Can you express it clearly and concisely, so your stakeholders can see themselves in it? Do you know how to hold yourself and your organization accountable to that purpose? If any of these questions feels difficult, give us a call.

Garth Yule is a Managing Director at Junxion. He brings insights from his work in the private and social sectors to bear on the complex challenges faced by organizations in both. You can reach him via [email protected]

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