Stairway to Impact: is your organization really doing good?

A new light-touch approach to assess initiatives aiming to change the status quo

The Stairway to Impact

What is the impact of an organization? How does it contribute to solving the biggest challenges the world faces nowadays? There are many ways to answer that with standards, KPIs, storytelling. But what is the real positive outcome of a business, nonprofit or governmental program? How do we assess and measure this impact? How about your organization’s impact?

As a consultant advising corporations and NGOs on sustainability strategy, I often find people who believe their organization is contributing to society and making a difference, but aren’t clear on how that’s happening. There are also others who don’t think their organization is doing much, and don’t know exactly how it could be improved.

To give some food for thought in this field, I propose a new light-touch approach to assess how organizations act in relation to the status quo. I call it the Stairway to Impact, and it has five levels:

Level 0 — The Backwards Goers: the lowest level of the stairway (on the ground level or even the basement) covers organizations indifferent to sustainability challenges as well as greenwashers, climate deniers etc. — in other words, any organization not engaged in doing positive impact, or who are engaged in doing negative impact (Big Oil corporations with no transition plan to clean energy, for example).

Level 1 — The Beginners and Surface Scratchers: the first step of the ladder includes organizations who are waking up to the importance of tackling social and environmental challenges but don’t know exactly how to do it (the Beginners), and also organizations taking some initiatives with only minor positive impact, especially if compared to and their carbon footprint or the social damage caused by their activities (the Surface Scratchers). Certain corporate social responsibility programs, for example, might fall in this category as they might have good intentions, but do too little to go significantly beyond that.

Level 2 — The Miscellaneous: the next step brings together organizations who generate different degrees of positive impact depending on the context they’re in or the kind of project they develop. This is very common among services professionals (e.g. consultants, designers, communications agencies etc.) because, as intermediates, they rely on several clients with different degrees of commitment with sustainability causes.

Level 3 — The Bold Movers: These are organizations built upon a business model that intrinsically generates positive social and/or environmental impact, and that follow high ethical standards. B Corporations and green startups, as well as certain NGOs, are some examples.

Level 4 — The System Changers¹ — This is the highest step of the ladder, and also the most difficult to reach. System changers are working strategically on factors with a high potential to cause a desirable shift in the current system, mitigating or eliminating effectively the causes of our world’s wicked problems. Different think tanks, NGOs and multidisciplinary teams of professionals already exist with the aim of being system changers to tackle climate change, poverty, misinformation and so on, but it’s still early to say who is consistently succeeding in doing so.

Moving up the stairway (and helping others to do so)

There’s mobility on the Stairway to Impact. It’s possible to climb its steps, and there are organizations whose job is to help others go upstairs. I call them the Climbing Boosters.

For example, Evangélicos pelo Clima (Evangelicals for Climate in Portuguese) is a group founded by members of different Brazilian protestant churches who preach that it’s a sin to destroy what God has created. This kind of initiative is extremely important to bring awareness about environmental problems to people (and, as a desirable consequence, to the organizations they work for) who are not sensitized by scientific data and are at the lowest levels of the ladder, in order to motivate them to go up.

Another example of a climbing booster is Be Social Change, an organization that offers training, coaching and networking opportunities for people willing to grow more meaningful careers in the nonprofit sector, B Corps or other mission driven businesses. Their target audience are individuals on level one or above who are eager to get to higher levels of the stairway.

These two organizations are relevant pieces in the “upstairs movement”. Activities and tools such as education and training, advocacy, business innovations, policy making, adaptive leadership development, and new technologies (including social ones), if correctly applied and combined, are some of the engines that make the upstairs movement happen.

Finding the right place on the stairway (and who to partner with)

Take time to reflect where you or your organization are on the stairway. Sometimes people deceive themselves with beautiful ESG reports², and sometimes they already do more than they think, but aren’t monitoring their activities and impact effectively. Then assess where you are and where you want to be. Maybe you conclude that your mission lays on some of the lower steps of the ladder. So how can you or your organization be more impactful sticking to its mission?

The answer is… partnerships! Nobody is able to generate true positive impact alone.

Let’s say someone runs an NGO that distributes food for homeless people. Maybe they conclude that the NGO is a level 1: no matter how much food they distribute, they’ll never solve the problem of hunger, as they’re not acting at its root-cause. However, until this complex problem is solved, someone has to feed the homeless. As a solution to complement their work, the NGO can for example partner with another organization that maps statistics about homeless people — where they come from, why they are in that situation etc. — to help provide important data for policy makers and public servants address this issue.

Whatever your decision regarding your place on the ladder, look for support from other individuals, communities, governmental bodies, companies, etc. to help achieve your organization’s impact goals. And more than that, think about how you can also offer support to other organizations on different levels of the stairway. The true transformation will happen when we not only better assess what we are doing, but act strategically together with others.

Some useful questions about impact:

  • What’s the purpose of your organization? Is it adequate to the social and environmental challenges that we’ve been facing? (Hint: take a look at the stairway)
  • How does your organization measure its positive and negative impact?
  • Who’s taking care of that impact in your organization?
  • How can you as an individual contribute?
  • Who can you team with inside and outside your organization? Network with people from groups with common causes as yours (it’s easy to find tons of them online).
  • If you’re engaged with other organizations working on a common ground, is there a way to optimize efforts? Can you share resources, for example?

Special thanks to Rafael Kaufmann, Zach Weismann and Jenn Lishansky for their insightful contributions!

[1] If you want to learn about systems change and why it’s relevant, start with Donella Meadows: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3828902-thinking-in-systems

[2] To understand why ESG reports fail, and how they can do better: https://hbr.org/2021/05/overselling-sustainability-reporting

Sustainability • Community Building • Stakeholder Engagement • Communication. f@fernandat.me