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What Is Social Impact?

Definition of Social Impact

A significant, positive change that addresses a pressing social challenge.

Having a social impact is the result of a deliberate set of activities with a goal around this definition.

Unpacking the Definition – pressing social challenge

It’s critical to clearly differentiate between the broad term of “impact” and a more deliberate definition of social impact. Impact on its own implies an influence or effect on virtually anything, given its context. Social impact, however is grounded in the effect it has on a pressing social challenge.

A healthy debate about what is pressing today is welcome and necessary as societal conditions invariably shift. Local contexts might differ from each other, perhaps mirroring global needs or occasionally running counter to them. But a level of consensus is required, often based on ensuring a foundation of human dignity and opportunity, which is most pressing for underserved populations and those lacking essential resources or services.

Unpacking the Definition – significant, positive change

Although possibly taken for granted as an assumption, the change we seek must improve the conditions around the current situation. So the effect from social impact must be a positive change to the challenge.

Finally, the use of significant is compelling for a couple of related reasons. The first is that social progress demands deep, structural movement of the status quo. Tackling symptoms of problems or trifling around the edges remains insufficient. Moreover, the phrase “social impact” is increasingly en vogue and often misused to imply even minimalist change. For us to have a potent and persuasive term, we must demand that social impact stands for a significant shift in society.

Social “I”s & “E”s

As language is evolving in our field, many institutions of learning now have centers focused on one of the Social “I”s and “E”s. While these are undoubtedly being used interchangeably, each term is rooted in a certain frame:

  •  Social Entrepreneur: individual
  •  Social Enterprise: structure
  •  Social Innovation: novelty/process
  •  Social Impact: results

There are a plethora of ways to achieve social impact, and our goal is to expose students to all the above frames, and many more–ranging from philanthropy to social justice, to design thinking and other strategies.

We chose our Center’s name and focus on social impact to deliberately emphasize the multiple routes towards a desired outcome. While we cover these other “Social X” phrases in all of our work, we are focused broadly on cross-sector and multidisciplinary efforts to deliver social impact.