From impact measurement to impact-led strategy...


From impact measurement to impact-led strategy...

...a framework for how organisations can maximise their impact.

 Today CAN published its new approach to social impact, centred on ‘impact-led strategy’. In this post, we outline how our approach has been informed by CAN’s own journey and the fundamental questions involved in developing impact-led strategy.


A brief history of CAN

Most organisational histories are stories of triumph with a single clear narrative.  Here is one that is not.

Those of you familiar with CAN will know that we have had a long and varied history as an organisation. Started by three pioneering social entrepreneurs, CAN has pursued a number of different opportunities to help realise our vision of a social economy buoyed by a thriving social enterprise market.

We co-founded UnLtd, the £100m endowment Fund for Social Entrepreneurs, as well as Social Enterprise Coalition (now Social Enterprise UK), and CAN Breakthrough, a venture philanthropy fund.  Then, our previous and current chief executive successfully exited the organisation from a range of unsustainable projects, and moved CAN from majority grant-dependency to having a sustainable business model and increased our trading income from 17% of total revenue in 2005 to 99% in 2013.

For CAN, this process of refinement was borne out of necessity: our activities were too disparate, and focused on pursuing a wide variety of business opportunities. CAN has not had trouble finding opportunities to further our mission. On the contrary, CAN’s journey is often about choosing not to pursue certain opportunities or to shut down programs that are no longer the best way to meet our mission and objectives. The question for us, now that our core offerings are clearer and more focused, is how we determine the best course in future to further our mission.

CAN’s situation is not unique. Indeed, every organisation driven by a social mission will have a number of options it could pursue to advance that mission, whether these have been articulated or not. It is a blinkered organisation that believes there will only ever be one way to achieve its mission.

Impact-led strategy

But this opens a big question: if an organisation has many ways to deliver its intended impact, how should the organisation determine the best course(s) of action? For a private sector entity the answer is relatively straightforward (at least on the surface) – the actions chosen should be whatever maximises profit and shareholder return. But for charities and social enterprises, the answer should be different – the actions chosen should be whatever maximises impact.

Given this imperative, it is surprising that the vast majority of discussion about impact measurement – a key activity to give social organisations the data needed to make decisions about ‘whatever maximises impact’ – relates to communicating past performance, securing new work, or discussions around ‘credibility’, ‘methodology’ and ‘robustness’. These are all worthwhile discussions, but far less so than a discussion of how impact measurement can be used to enable organisations to make decisions that maximise their impact.

Today, CAN Invest is launching the first part of our new approach to impact – a description of what it means for organisations to be ‘impact-led’ and what this looks like in practice. We will be adding to this over the coming weeks and months, drawing on our experiences both as a social enterprise in our own right, and as advisors to a range of charities, social enterprises and social purpose businesses, helping them measure and manage their impact.

Please read our initial thoughts on ‘impact led strategy’ here.  Some of the fundamental questions we are asking are:

  • Can we link organisational decisions and activity in a meaningful way to impact measurement?
  • If so, how should organisations start on their journey to developing an ‘impact-led strategy’ to guide their decisions?

Please tell us what you think, but most importantly, we hope you will join us and help to shift the dominant conversation about social impact from one focused on measurement for its own sake to something far more holistic: one that sees social impact as core to how social organisations operate at both a strategic and day-to-day level.


The CAN Invest Team

Category: Invest