Journey to the Center of Impact

Frank Wang is a fourth-year dual degree student enrolled in business administration and medical science at Ivey Business School and Western University.

Frank & Pillar Summer Student Cohort

Frank & Pillar Summer Student Cohort

As an individual interested in entrepreneurship, Frank wanted more than just financial return, wanting to see the other impacts an organization can bring to its communities. So, during the past 10 weeks, Frank worked with the Social Enterprise & Social Finance team at Pillar Nonprofit Network, exploring how the positive community impact of social enterprises manifests in our region.

In The Art of Impact, Frank shares insights and discoveries from his journey, and posits an inclusive reimagining of how we might define and understand 'impact' in the lexicon of social enterprise. 

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Impact. A powerful, vague word that captures so much. But what does it mean? Rewind ten weeks, and to me it was a label for a vague feeling of having positively influenced a group or an individual’s life. But by whose standard was positivity defined?

My original conception of impact was framed by brands like Dove – a word synonymous with marketing strategy. There was no distinction between corporate social responsibility and mission-driven goals, no difference between impact that’s bolted on versus baked in.

My time at Pillar Nonprofit Network marked the beginning of a journey, a journey in understanding how impact is carried out through values. As a current university student studying science and business - fields that emphasize the importance of knowledge in structuring evaluation systems, being able to define impact is crucial to evaluating progress. The introduction to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) provided criteria that allowed for impact quantification and communication. Although there are 17 listed objectives, each with about 10 targets, there is a lot of room for interpretation. As I dug into various social enterprises’ impact, it became increasingly clear impact didn’t fit neatly into the UNSDG categories.

My conversation with the London Arts Council invited a different understanding of impact, an impact based on values. The arts led me to question the effectiveness of the UN SDGs as a blanket metric for all impact. The dynamic scope of art, with inclusion at its core, defied the squarely-cut UN SDG metrics. Approaching impact as a third-party with a narrowed view was not helping me grasp the possibilities impact holds. Instead, through listening and by breaking up the definition I had, could I hope to expand my understanding of impact.  

Using values to define impact trumped the ability of the UN SDG. A values-led method combines intention and creates a community around a belief. Art is created through an individual’s values and can be a seed that grows community. Community isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the UN SDGs, but I believe that the UN SDG framework is structured to reach community as its final objective.

While I’ve found immense value in using the UN SDG as a framework to define impact, it should not be a standalone tool that omits the significance of a mission-driven goal. It's only with a clear mission can an enterprise have impact that’s baked in, not bolted on – meaning the organization structures itself in a way to infuse impact and realize revenues through advancing its mission.

In the end, the classification of social enterprise is a tool, a definition that quickly communicates the mission-driven emphasis of an organization. I recognize the value the arts bring to communities, and that value is not dependent on being classified as a social enterprise. An institutional definition of social enterprise can be strictly limited to those that fit UN SDGs. There’s a certain simplicity that comes with a line in the sand. That line, however, would fail to capture all the great enterprises and organizations that move ahead with their mission without trying to align themselves with the UN SDGs, but rather with the community. Instead, it’s only through iteration of a definition that fits the needs of the organization, and seeking feedback from those intimate with the work, that a truly inclusive articulation of impact can be crafted.

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