Buzzword buzzing: “Making a difference” and “social impact”

What does “making a difference” actually mean, and “social impact”? These words are bouncing about in countless quantities not only in the non-profit world (yes this really is just a link to a google search), but also among companies thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (another buzzword with changing meanings) and beyond. As you can read in this previous post, I think it is of real importance that people take responsibility for the “difference they can make” and act upon it – for their own good as well as that of others. So what “difference” are we even talking about?

A difference for what, for whom, by what, and what happens next? And when is an “impact” actually “social”?

Of course there are definitions in dictionaries. Like the one defining social impact as “The effect of an activity on the social fabric of the community and well-being of the individuals and families.” in the Business Dictionary. That one is problematic because a) what is the “social fabric” and b) what “community” is meant. More importantly, though, is that really what people mean when they say they are creating social impact?

Arguably, people have loads of different ideas of what “making a difference” means. Here are two word clouds created from two other blogs explaining the idea, both with the idea of making people do stuff to “make a difference”.

Wordcloud created from a post on “The Change Blog”

You can interpret lots of stuff into these images, or you can go and read the posts and decide whether they help you make a difference. I actually just put them here to show how differently people approach the whole “making a difference” business – as “just do something good for the world” or as “measure the impact on problems”.


Wordcloud created from the 80 000 hours website

These are good starting points to show that there is no universally agreed definition of “making a difference”, let alone the “social impact” or “change” bit. Whether we like it or not, there probably won’t be one either.


It’s not far-fetched to argue this is bad, because it allows people to blubber on about those things meaning literally anything they do, making every lily watered a “difference made”. That could result in the words not meaning anything. And why would we have such words in the first place, if words are meant to facilitate communication?

Especially “social impact” has been turned into a jargon word, thus a word that the “in-group”, i.e. non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and corporates wanting to appear CSR-focused  (corporate social responsibility- you see, you really can’t get rid of all the acronyms in this space), uses to show they are part of that better group of people, to the exclusion of the “out-group”.
That was actually a major reason for starting this blog – the people engaged in “social impact” work are very well networked, and tend, as all humans do, to talk a lot to people in their network, people sharing similar ideas, and people sharing the same vocabulary. What about people who don’t use or think about “social impact” or “making a difference” as often or as openly? Are they necessarily the “out-group”? Are they necessarily not interested in creating “social impact”?

Here, another “social impact professional” argued that because we have filled the buzzword with so many meanings that it is meaningless, we should drop it altogether, in favour of “systematic social improvement”. I have a lot of sympathy for the principle of calling things by their name to avoid confusion, misunderstandings and – buzzword alert – action without impact. So that’s cool, and he has a big point, but “systematic social improvement” is so long it is likely to get abbreviated into “SSI” because the sector is so fond of acronyms already. It also leaves further questions open – what constitutes an improvement, and what scale does it have to be to be systematic? It thus effectively creates a new buzzword – new jargon.

The thing with jargon, at least among the “social impact people” I have interacted with so far, is that everyone condemns it, but everyone uses it anyways.

From my limited perspective, I guess that is due to two tendencies – on the one hand engaging in work aiming for equality and better chances for disadvantaged groups means we should really be inclusive and accessible in our language, but on the other hand the general professional sphere and public opinion require us to sound elaborate, show expertise and speak the same language as businesses. That is how “ROI” (return on investment) entered strategy documents, instead of “what we achieve vs what we put in”. And that may also be how “social impact” became the catch-all term to say “we are doing something good for people’s lives, and it probably takes more than two words to explain how”.

So what now? Should we follow the blog’s advice quoted above, and get rid of the word “social impact” with all its jargon appendices? I believe forbidding words really doesn’t help anyone, and jargon will always be something this sector struggles with.

In addition, there are ways “social impact” and “making a difference” are useful: they catch people’s attention and are generally associated with positive things. They allow all types of organisations and individuals trying to make lives better for other individuals to be perceived as a movement rather than a set of lone do-gooders. We can exploit this perception, for example by letting big corporations boast about the “social impact” they have through partnering with a charity or NGO. If that rather superficial layer of meaning is enough for both parties to reach their goals, then hey go for it.

However, you and I know better. The next time you hear someone talking about “social impact” or a “difference they are making”, ask them what exactly they mean. Ask them what it looks like, that difference.screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-22-03-43

If it looks like this, (irony alert) then it clearly isn’t actual social impact – then it’s pure self-promotion, sometimes with strong negative impact. This would merit an entire new blog post to explain, so in the meantime, I’d like to start by admitting that everything we summarise as “social impact” is a lot more complicated and a lot less hero-work than we like to admit.

Alright, by this point you will have thought “isn’t this blog post evading defining social impact just as much as everyone else”. So here is what I mean when I use “social impact”, and why the blog is called like that: Improving Lives. Lives of all current and future generations, of all species, of all ethnicities and religions, of all backgrounds, but lives that would be worse than others, worse than a minimum, without some sort of intervention. That is as imperfect a definition as any, and it only sits at the top of this blog because I want to be associated with that movement of people making lives better for others. It’s as abstract a definition as any, without examples, so here are some, please add more in the comments!

Giving entrepreneurial farmers tools to grow their way out of poverty: Kickstart International 

Providing loans to people at a rate that is – buzzword alert – empowering: Kiva

Promoting educational excellence around the world through networks and resource sharing: Teach for All

Investing donations into projects to end poverty: Acumen

A really cool – buzzword alert – social innovation against landmines and tuberculosis: Apopo Herorats

Delivering care and getting people off the streets in the UK: Aspire

Working with young people to end religious conflict around the world: World Faith

Make more world-changers thrive: Ashoka

Big data and algorithms to solve big problems: Bayes Impact

(Disclaimer: this is by no means a representative sample of all the amazing work that is being done somewhere out there. Go search for more! Here is a list of seriously awesome work from the Skoll centre to get you started.)


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