Growing impact: a red herring for the charitable sector?

Alice Thornton discusses how too much focus on impact growth can drive attention away from approaches for sustaining impact.
Growing impact: a red herring for the charitable sector?

Growing impact: a red herring for the charitable sector?

We were recently asked by Paul Hamlyn Foundation to write a short review of ways that charitable organisations can grow, or sustain their impact.

It shouldn’t have been a challenging task. This is a fundamental, bread and butter issue for the sector. Every organisation’s core mission is to have an impact. And yet it felt in a small way as if our review was breaking new ground.

Predictably, a quick internet search threw up masses of material on growth. Scaling, replication, expansion, and innovation have been obsessions for the sector for years. And it is something that, on the whole, funders have encouraged.[1] It seems that the not-for-profit sector has caught the start-up culture bug, with its focus on fast growth, agile development and ‘disrupting the system’. Growth is exciting, grabs headlines, has the potential to enable greater impact for more people. When we think of impact, we tend to think about growing it.

Our search for material on sustaining impact, on the other hand, threw up very little. The art of maintaining an organisation’s impact, negotiating complex changes in context to ensure that its mission continues to be delivered, apparently does not have the same appeal. Unlike growth, we could find no good quality guides on how to create a strategy to sustain impact at existing levels. (Please get in touch if you know of any).

Is this a problem? Surely it is better for organisations to be ambitious, and at least aim to grow their impact, even if achieving that is challenging? Isn’t growing impact an integral part of every charity’s mission?

And yet we all know that growth isn’t always appropriate. When we’re young it is expected that we grow and develop, to the delight of family friends and distant relatives: ‘hasn’t she grown!’ But as we get older growth is no longer guaranteed. The same is often the case with charitable organisations. We might expect steady growth in the early years, and a minority may grow very fast. But after a few years, the vast majority of organisations will hit a plateau, and after that any growth – whether in size, or in impact – will be either incremental or uneven. Luckily, most people recognise that this is perfectly normal: charities can’t be expected to grow all of the time, and organisations need time to consolidate between growth spurts, if they are lucky and talented enough to achieve them.[2] Growth isn’t always appropriate, and it isn’t realistic to expect to consistently grow impact.

So why the dearth of thinking on sustaining impact, if that is what most charitable organisations are doing, most of the time? My hunch is that we tend to mistakenly associate ‘sustaining’ with ‘stagnating’. Of course, stagnation is still too common. An organisation can get stuck in a rut, delivering the same projects without reacting to changes in people’s needs or the wider context, becoming ineffective and inefficient. But this is not sustaining impact – this is allowing impact to diminish for lack of a strategy to maintain it. Sustaining impact is an active process; it requires organisations to change, adapt, try new things, implement old things better, respond to a changing environment, understand their users and actively develop. Sustaining impact requires time, energy, money and brainpower. Good charity leadership will recognise when growth is not feasible or desirable, and will put in place a strategy for sustaining impact instead, to ensure that stagnation does not creep in.

As a sector, we need to develop more support, guidance and tailored funding for organisations that are sustaining impact.[3] They are, after all, the majority and ‘the norm’. Growth is exciting, but in the wrong context funding it can be a waste of resource.

 

Notes

[1] e.g. The Growth Fund is one example of many funds that is explicitly designed for organisations wanting to grow; GEO’s Pathways to Grow Impact provides advice on strategies to grow impact, but not sustaining impact; Stanford Social Innovation Review’s section on scaling contains many examples of sector leaders encouraging various routes to growth, but little on sustaining impact; Social Replication is one solution that has been developed for social organisations wanting to grow impact.

[2] See also NCVO’s most recent data on growth in the sector.

[3] See also Dan Gregory’s piece on ‘maintenance’ for civil society.

Alice Thornton
Alice Thornton

Related articles