Three common misconceptions about social impact

Esther Toth


Posted in: Community, Policy & Research, Speaking Out, Strategy

Three common misconceptions about social impact

April 02, 2015

Esther Toth discusses the common misconceptions about the social impact that companies can achieve within community investment programmes. 


At Corporate Citizenship we strive to stay abreast of latest developments in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainability. One important way we do this is through our own research and insight papers.

Our latest report focuses on how corporate community and social investment has evolved over the last couple of decades, and where we and practitioners think it is headed in the future.

We put a strong case forward for companies to adopt a much more entrepreneurial, targeted and streamlined approach to investing in society. This approach is characterised by flagship programmes through which companies focus their investments for maximum social and business impact.

We surveyed and interviewed corporate community investment practitioners to learn from their successes and the dead ends they may have hit along the way. In this article I put forward three key insights that are a useful reminder for organisations at any stage of their social investment journey.

Misconception #1: Social impact is about understanding the issues in the community

Wrong, or only partly true.  Of course understanding the most pressing community need is paramount to a successful social investment strategy. But, in our experience, social and community investment professionals already see this as part of their job and are usually pretty good at it.

We found that the single aspect that can make or break a community investment strategy is how well the social investment team understands the business: its operations, growth plans, strategic challenges and priorities.

To achieve this level of understanding the social investment team needs a seat at the right table. Make sure to be invited to the right meetings, and get know as much as possible about organisational objectives. Only by understanding internal capabilities can interventions be designed in the community in a way that will deliver a tangible positive social impact.

In our latest research paper we highlight several cases such as Amway or the Kellogg Company, in which greater integration with the business – and close collaboration with the R&D and Marketing teams – enabled the scale-up and ultimate success of social investment programmes.

Misconception #2: Diverse social investment activities respond to different stakeholder needs

Yes, it does, but it also leads to a disparate set of activities and ultimately a very busy, but not very focused or impactful social investment portfolio. The aim should be to do the right thing, and not to exhaust human and financial resources by doing as many things as possible.

The key differentiator here is that companies with leading flagship social investment programmes are able to prioritise their stakeholder audiences. Employees, customers, key opinion formers, local government, or regulators – these are all important stakeholders and an organisation should aim to engage with them at some level. However, for a focused and targeted social investment strategy, it is imperative to select a priority audience that is paramount for future business success.

Why is this ruthless prioritisation essential? Because getting it right has a catalytic effect. Prioritisation means figuring out which group’s dedicated support is needed first, in order to successfully engage with others later. For example, Rolls-Royce’s STEM education programme is able to reach many different stakeholder groups through their employees who act as brand ambassadors and STEM advocates in the community.

Misconception #3: Social investment is about the doing, not the telling

The doing, or in other words, designing and implementing a flagship social investment programmes certainly comes first. But, communications and storytelling can’t only be an afterthought. It must be considered as part of the strategy because it will amplify the programme and help create a movement behind it.

There can be many reasons why storytelling isn’t always seen as an important element of the strategy. For example, there may be a lack of specialised communications expertise in the social investment team or, as Unilever’s CMO Keith Weed pointed out in a recent article:

“the marriage of marketing and social purpose is not always seamless […] marketing people felt they were being held back by our sustainability challenge and that it took their eyes off the ball of growing their brands. On the other hand, the sustainability people thought marketing was part of the problem and would never take them seriously”.

Organisations can feel like that they are doing a lot of good things in the community, but stakeholders don’t seem to know or care. This should be a wake-up call for a social investment team that the issue is perhaps not with getting the word out but with the lack of focus in the strategy.  Our latest paper includes the five critical success factors for a targeted and focused flagship social investment programme that can cut through the noise and reach target audiences.

Implementing a focused social investment strategy right is not a linear process. It certainly wasn’t a linear process for the organisations we interviewed for our latest research paper, nor for the Shell Foundation either. It is about trial and error, and learning from past mistakes. What is absolutely essential for an organisation is to have a commitment to continuous improvement, and a constant strive for excellence.


Esther Toth is a Senior Consultant at Corporate Citizenship