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The Four Stages of Social Alchemy: Transforming problems into ideas that change the world

Posted on November 20, 2014 in Sector News

Transformative social change is the new standard for the social sector, and impact the bottom line. But, what does this mean and how do we get there?

Like millions around the world, we were saddened this summer by the sudden passing of Robin Williams, a true original. We were particularly moved by his words, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” At Social Impact Architects, we strive to understand and help define the transformative process that must occur in order for this to happen in the social sector.

Transformative social change is the new standard for the social sector, and impact is the new bottom line. But, what does this mean and how do we get there? These questions have been circulating around our office for the past year, and this summer we set out to answer them. Transformative social change always starts with a problem needing to be solved. The social sector’s responsibility is to take that problem, transform it into an idea and then an impactful solution, which can be scaled to create change. But, how can we get better at creating this “social alchemy”?

Here are some of our initial thoughts on the four stages of turning a problem into social gold:


In the first stage we are scientists, uncovering the problem and developing hypotheses. Rather than jumping to a solution, we believe design thinking is a more effective approach. Design thinking combines empathy for the problem, creativity for solutions and rationality for the best fit. In his TEDTalk, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO – one of the leading companies in design thinking – posits that design thinking can and should be used to tackle new and bigger problems, such as global warming, healthcare, education, etc. To innovate, we must first understand the problem from all the angles, including why it exists and why it persists. We cannot jump to the idea until all the research is done and we have brainstormed all the possible ideas.


In the second stage, we are engineers, measuring and testing the idea for its impact. If the idea has merit, it will move through a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement – BUILD -> MEASURE -> LEARN – until impact has been proven through extensive evaluation. If the idea is problematic, it may need to go back to the Innovate stage to be re-developed. This is not seen as failure, but instead as a rapid prototyping process where ideas are tested quickly and are allowed to fail early and cheaply. In the social sector, we also call this stage the “Lean Start-Up,” which can be a valuable way to design a program where impact has already been proven and can be customized for a local context.

Impact & Scale

In the third and fourth stages, we have proven impact and now need to take the idea to scale. We are franchise owners, focused on replicating THE idea in a number of different environments. In the social sector, THE idea – often a program or organization – has many layers and the element(s) that are most impactful are difficult to unravel. The first step is to develop a list of elements that are core to the impactful idea and that are non-essential to impact, and test their success separately. As we continue to think about social alchemy, it begs more questions of us and the social sector as a whole. For example, we love to innovate, but how good are we at taking it to impact and scale? We need to scale, but are we starting with well-designed ideas? What processes and supports need to be in place to assist with this transformation?

Here is some food for thought on the topic by one of our favorite authors, Paulo Coelho, who wrote in The Alchemist: “This is why alchemy exists….So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. … That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”

We must strive to become better at transforming problems into ideas that will change the world.

Suzanne Smith is a serial social entrepreneur and bridges many disciplines as a coach and consultant to social sector organizations as Founder and Managing Director of Social Impact Architects and Co-Founder of Flywheel: Social Enterprise Hub. She also educates future social entrepreneurs as a frequent guest lecturer at campuses across the country and as Adjunct Professor at the University of North Texas and Research Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University. She is also a leading author, blogger (@socialtrendspot), and top-rated speaker.



An Introduction to SROI: Evaluator's Cut

Posted on November 20, 2014 in Sector News

The world of program evaluation, like any other, has its hot topics. Multi-methods evaluation, developmental evaluation and data visualization are a few of the things evaluators have been buzzing about recently. At the 2014 annual Canadian Evaluation Society conference in Ottawa, Social Return on Investment (SROI) splashed onto the evaluation scene in Canada with three interesting and diverse presentations on the topic. More about that later.

First, for those not familiar with it: What is SROI? The international SROI Network defines SROI as “…an approach to understanding and managing the value of the social, economic and environmental outcomes created by an activity or an organization.” It is a principles-based approach that seeks to reflect the net social, economic and/or environmental value for stakeholders and change that is often not valued or described in monetary terms.

The international SROI Network further highlights that the approach aims to give participants a voice in resource allocation decisions and that it is “a story and not a number.” This is a reference to something that stands out the first time you read an SROI report: the SROI ratio, which describes the net social, economic and/or environmental return for every dollar invested in the program in financial terms (e.g. an SROI ratio of 3.14:1 indicates a $3.14 social return for every $1 invested in the program).

So where does SROI fit into the larger evaluation world and what does it add? What makes it unique and when is it best used? As an evaluator, I see SROI as a tool that can help me, the program staff, participants and funders to understand program cost, efficiency, and effectiveness in terms of value. I think this goes broader than the Rossi et al. conceptualization of the assessment of program cost and efficiency, because it includes an analysis of the financial and in kind input, as well as the value created and consumed for various stakeholders that experience change due to the program. If you are an evaluator thinking of using the SROI methodology, the good news is that the front end of an SROI analysis is an outcome-based evaluation.

Scoping, identifying key stakeholders, clarifying the program’s theory of change, and mapping and measuring outcomes for each program activity are all standard parts of an SROI analysis. Some of SROI’s unique attributes are that:

  • It goes further to research and assign financial proxies for those outcomes that allow for it
  • It typically takes a broader look at outcomes for various target stakeholders and not just the program’s target participants (e.g. funders, communities, siblings and parents of target participants and public services)


  • It advocates for and applies a built in, standardized process of differentiating between outcomes and impact by calculating discount rate, attribution, deadweight, drop-off and displacement to ensure a defensible SROI is calculated (avoiding over-claiming of the social return)
  • It tells the story of change for stakeholders, using both qualitative and quantitative change descriptions from the outcome-based evaluation as well as a description, in financial terms, of the net value created for stakeholders (this is the SROI ratio)

The three SROI sessions at the evaluation conference mentioned at the beginning of this article provide a good snapshot of where SROI is currently surfacing in the Canadian evaluation landscape. The presentations were about: (i) three evaluator’s experiences conducting an SROI analysis for the first time; (ii) an emerging meta-analysis of 150 SROI reports; and (iii) an introduction to SROI for evaluators by a leading Canadian practitioner. SROI is most definitely being discussed, considered and utilized by Canadian evaluators and program staff. It is also reaching a level of maturity and exposure where robust discussions can be had about the appropriate use of and assumptions behind the methodology.

Through various networks and within multiple private, public and non-profit organizations, the community of SROI practitioners and users are growing, leading to a growing body of knowledge and work that informs SROI practice.

SROI has come into my sparse ‘assessment of program cost & efficiency’ toolbox at an opportune time as I have become more aware of and involved in social change, partnership and entrepreneurship initiatives. The SROI methodology is providing this evaluator with a flexible but grounded approach to help program staff, participants and funders measure, understand and talk about social change.

For more information on the methodology and to get involved in the social value measurement conversation, visit:

The SROI Network. (2012). A guide to Social Return on Investment. (2nd ed.).
Rossi, P.H., Lipsey, M.W., & Freeman, H.E. (2004). Evaluation. A systematic approach. (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage 

Jasper Buys joined SiMPACT Strategy Group in June of 2014 after a number of years focused on strategic planning and evaluation at Athabasca University. Jasper holds a Master of Social Sciences degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His focus at SiMPACT is in SROI and evaluation consulting for various federally, provincially and foundation funded programs and initiatives that aim to create positive social, economic and/or environmental impact. Jasper is a director of the Alberta and North West Territories Chapter of the Canadian Evaluation Society, a Rotarian and a self-appointed ambassador for the fine wines of South Africa. Jasper and his wife, Lecia, live in Calgary with their energetic Labrador puppy, Nelson.


A Campaign to Encourage Employers to Give Traditional Hiring Practices the Day Off

Posted on November 20, 2014 in Sector News

Today in the United States, companies are struggling to fill more than 4 million entry-level positions, while 6 million 16- to- 24 year olds remain out of school and out of work. These young adults, known as opportunity youth, are motivated, loyal, hard workers, but they lack opportunity, often because they have yet to earn the traditional credentials that employers value. These young adults represent an unrealized opportunity for employers nationwide to access millions of talented workers and to grow their businesses and the economy.

To close this divide between our employers in need of talent and our young people in need of opportunity, we are thrilled to announce the new Grads of Life campaign. Grads of Life is a national Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaign designed to transform employers’ perceptions of opportunity youth from social liabilities to essential economic assets and call businesses to act. Specifically, the PSA campaign encourages employers to rethink their hiring practices and equips them with the information and tools to find, cultivate, and train this great pool of untapped talent at The comprehensive multi-media campaign, comprised of TV, radio, print, outdoor and digital ads, was developed by a coalition of nonprofit partners in collaboration with the Ad Council and Arnold Worldwide.

The PSA drives viewers to, an online resource designed to provide employers of all sizes across sectors with the information and the tools they need to learn about, invest in, and customize pathways to work within their companies. features success stories that identify and spotlight employers who are investing in employment pathways and a Partner Directory that provides employers with access to a vetted list of community-based partners that they can collaborate with to build pathway opportunities. Whether an employer wants to develop and engage young talent to produce a workforce with technical, academic, and professional skills, or wants to discover an alternative model for selecting the strongest and best part-time or full-time employees, can help.

Innovative employers across the U.S. have created pathways to employment programs and are realizing the competitive advantage of a reliable pipeline of entry-level employees with skills that match their business needs. However, many more employers need to get in the game and learn how employment pathway models like mentoring, internships, school-to-work, and hiring pathways can help their businesses build a better workforce from a historically overlooked talent pool of motivated young adults.

As committed partners, whether in business, non-profit, philanthropy or government, your energy and expertise are essential to propel employers to consider opportunity youth as a reliable source of skilled workers, and to spur businesses to act by creating more opportunities for underserved youth in our country. As we spread the word, we are actively seeking partners to amplify the campaign’s message: ranging from non-profit stakeholders to philanthropic supporters.

We encourage readers to explore and for more information, please contact the Grads of Life campaign at


Breaking Boundaries to Repair the World

Posted on November 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

By Liz Maw, Net Impact CEO
(A version of this blog post originally appeared on the New Global Citizen website.)

Two Ways to Break Down Barriers to Create a Positive Net Impact

Twenty two years ago, a small community of MBA’s and entrepreneurs had a boundary-breaking idea. In the midst of a world where business was often viewed as an evil force, they dared to think differently. United by their vision of a future where business could mean more than making money, they held the first Net Impact Conference.

The boundaries we now face are less obvious but no less limiting. We’re grappling with barriers that are global in scope. What’s more, the stakes are higher than ever; persistent poverty, global health epidemics, climate change, and joblessness threaten the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.

In early November, our community gathered to take on the messy, uncomfortable, controversial (yet inspiring and imperative) challenge of breaking boundaries once again. We heard from impact leaders across sectors who are embracing these strategies for disruptive change.

Work with the “Enemy”

Breaking boundaries often requires being willing to collaborate with the most unlikely allies. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman has broken many boundaries with his leadership of the world’s third-largest consumer packaged goods company. To have a discernible impact on big issues, Polman knows that he must work with many stakeholders, including the competition. As one example, Unilever is working with marketplace rival Nestle on a coalition to convert the global market to natural refrigerants for display cases. "It needs a tipping point; no individual company can do that alone," says Polman.

Dr. Temple Grandin, who became famous for her achievements in mathematics, has also embraced the opportunity to work with unexpected bedfellows. Because of her high-functioning autism, Temple thinks differently than most of us. Temple has leveraged her keen ability to think visually, due to her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli, into a unique and monumental career collaborating with fast-food companies like McDonalds to improve the conditions of slaughterhouses. An animal lover working on slaughterhouses? As you might expect, her work with McDonalds and others has been decried by animal activists, yet Temple has been steady in her conviction to focus on maximizing animal comfort over lengthening animal lives.

Measure What Matters


Overhead spending has been one of the most commonly used metrics to define “good” nonprofits by groups like the Better Business Bureau, but Dan Pallotta has begun a revolutionary movement to change how organizations measure the difference they make in the world. A decade ago, his company Pallotta TeamWorks was criticized for overspending on marketing, administration, and logistics. His critics argued that such overhead costs cut too deeply into the potential impact of their charitable contributions. Too many nonprofits, Pallotta says, are rewarded for how little they spend instead of for their results. Rather, he suggests nonprofits should be evaluated on the basis of their ambitious goals and measurable impact.

In his now-famous 2013 Ted Talk, provocatively titled, “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong,” Pallotta makes the point that the outcomes of the charity—in his case, fundraising hundreds of millions of dollar for AIDS and other health causes—outweigh the need to limit overhead spending in the nonprofit sector. As a keynote speaker at Net Impact 2014, Dan asked the social impact community to question long-held assumptions about the best way to measure impact and effectiveness.

Breaking Boundaries to Repair the World
This year’s Net Impact community came together to break boundaries to create a just and sustainable world. Mandy Yard, a student attendee of the last two Net Impact conferences, said, “I consider it a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. Not only are you surrounded by friendly, passionate, and knowledgeable people, but also you are exposed to inspirational and practical tools to increase social impact in any field.”


Bringing Equality...

Posted on October 23, 2014 in Sector News the Changing Face of Public Education

It’s a defining moment for the educational sector. With the start of the new school year, there is perhaps no better time to discuss some critical issues facing the educational sector. For one thing, for the first time in history, U.S public schools will welcome back a new majority – a student body of black, Latino, Asian, and Native American children who now make up more of the student population than non-hispanic whites. Many of these students fall below the poverty line and fall behind in schools adopting tough new academic standards.

What’s more, Standard and Poor economists recently released a new analysis that called education inequality the main barrier to the country’s economic recovery – declaring that if the average American worker finished just one more year of school the U.S. economy would grow $105 billion annually for the next five years.

To discuss the changing face of public education and what is being done to ensure equity, SEE Change editor-in-chief, Elisa Birnbaum, spoke with Dan Cardinali, president of Communities In Schools. For over thirty years the organization has been helping students achieve in school, graduate and go on to bright futures. Believing that relationships have invaluable impact, Communities in Schools embraces an evidence-based model that positions site coordinators inside schools to assess students’ needs and provide resources to help them succeed in the classroom and in life.

Please comment on the recent Standard and Poor declaration that education inequality is the main barrier to the country’s economic recovery. How have you experienced that challenge in your work and how concerning is it to you?

This is an issue that we talk about all the time at the leadership level of Communities In Schools. In fact our board chair, Elaine Wynn, just published an op-ed on the topic at, so it’s really top of mind for us. There’s no doubt that the wealth gap in this country is getting out of control. Education should be our best tool for combating the trend, but instead we’re allowing the wealth gap to create an education gap, because so many poor kids are concentrated in under-resourced schools where they simply don’t have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.

How does the new demographic of students (“the new majority”) and rising levels of poverty impact the challenges ahead for those working in the field of education?

Let me address the poverty issue specifically, because it affects all kids in similar ways – whether poor white kids in Appalachia or poor black kids in South Chicago. Poverty creates a whole constellation of problems that makes it harder for students to be truly present and available for learning. In poor neighborhoods, hunger and hopelessness and fear are a part of life, and kids can’t just check their problems at the door of the school. Maybe a girl can’t see the board because her family can’t afford to buy glasses, or maybe a boy is sitting in math class knowing that his mother is being evicted from their temporary housing. How are kids supposed to learn in those conditions?

Briefly describe the community school model – when it originated, its mission and how it works

Community schools seek to erase the artificial lines that separate the school from the broader community. The model recognizes that we can’t treat “failing schools” as a freestanding problem, separate from other community issues such as unemployment, homelessness and crime. When everyone “owns” the problems of failing schools and high dropout rates, then we can begin to think holistically about the best way to address those issues. Government, businesses, churches, nonprofits – everyone has a stake in education, and everyone has something to offer. Community schools are about joining hands instead of pointing fingers.

Tell us about the work of Communities In Schools, its mission, the challenges it faces and what you’re doing to overcome them

We recognize that every community has an incredible wealth of resources available for struggling students, but all too often those resources go untapped simply because of the “silos” that separate education from other public and private sectors. At Communities In Schools, we put a trained site coordinator inside a struggling school, tasked with identifying at-risk students, befriending them, and connecting them to the resources they need to stay in school and succeed in life. We call this Integrated Student Supports because we’re finding resources for the students and delivering those supports in the school setting, where we can be most effective and efficient. It might be transportation or mentoring or eyeglasses or daycare – the needs are as varied as the students themselves – but it takes a caring, trained adult to identify both the problem and the solution.

The challenge, I suppose, is that our model is labor intensive. You can’t build relationships with a mail survey or a smartphone app. You have to be there every day in the school and out in the community. Over the past 30-plus years, we’ve developed a set of best practices for the effective delivery of Integrated Student Supports. Today we’re providing integrated student supports directly to more than 1.2 million students, but we know that only scratches the surface. In order to quickly ramp up the human resources needed to reach another 5 million needy students, we’re exploring a kind of accreditation program that would allow other organizations to learn the finer points of integrated student supports. If we can’t personally reach every student who needs help, we at least want to ensure that every student has access to a quality, accredited ISS provider committed to evidence-based results.

Please explain why you believe the debate vs public/charter schools or vouchers should not be our focus and why servicing underprivileged kids should be.

There is no question that we should have an honest dialogue about how we can ensure that all children – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – have access to good schools in their community. The truth is that if we want students to succeed in good schools and benefit from education reform initiatives, we have to address the environmental issues that are barriers to learning. If a child is hungry, homeless, cold or lacks a caring adult in their life, it has a profound negative impact on their ability to learn. So must our attention on kids to ensure they are ready to learn in the classroom. Until we do that, we cannot change the picture of education for millions of children.

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.




5 Ways to Use Media for Social Change

Posted on October 23, 2014 in Sector News

For the past decade, Ripple Strategies has been harnessing the power of the media to help change-makers share their stories, create a bigger impact and leave a better legacy. They recently published a report entitled The Ripple Effect: How to Use the Media for Social Change, outlining their key experiences and learnings from over the years. SEE Change asked the co-founders of Ripple Strategies to share their top 5 takeaways. Here they are:

1: Get to Know the New Media Landscape

The worlds of print, television, and radio have collided on the Internet, allowing anyone to access all these industries have to offer at the click of a button. With this collision, the lines between traditional media and social networking have all but disappeared, leaving a new media landscape that everyone can participate in. Familiarize yourself with and take advantage of all of the communications tools at your fingertips.

2: Establish Your Voice & Authority

Today’s media landscape is a deluge of voices and content. We’ve learned that to amplify your voice and to foster the trust necessary to compel action, you need to establish authority by developing credible content, fostering credible relationships and preparing credible responses. Ultimately, for your message to be heard, believed, and acted upon, this is imperative. No matter what your passion is, it’s not just what you know that is important. It is how you promote your message, who you build relationships with, and how you respond to the world that can make or break you.

3: Ignite Conversations

With the advent of social media, all media has become dynamic. Your audience can now respond directly to your campaigns using commenting features on websites, on your social media profiles, or even just posting their opinions using their own social media channels. Anything and everything you do should be aimed at sparking this digital dialogue, which leads to “real-life” discussions, as well. It goes without saying that the more people are talking about you (in a positive way), the better; so igniting conversations should be a key element in any type of media campaign.

4: Measure Impact

People always ask us how we measure the success of a campaign, and our answer is simple: there is no standard formula for how to do it. In fact, we think measuring “success” is too narrow of an approach. Instead, we encourage measuring “impact.” Clearly it’s important to have concrete, measurable goals, but social change takes time. Limiting yourself to a narrow definition of success, or subscribing to the short-sighted, volatile metrics that permeate so much of the digital media world, can be both misleading and self-defeating. The “success vs. failure” paradigm grossly oversimplifies the many ways that social change happens. It also ignores the fact that, more often than not, the law of unintended consequences makes appearances in our work. Keep your mind and eyes open to all the diverse impacts of your efforts.

5: Refine & Repeat

Every campaign will teach you something about target audiences, messaging, and even yourself. Refine and repeat your media campaigns to continuously grow your impact. Your core mission, goals, and messages should remain consistent, but consider different ways to frame your messages. Consider different vehicles for delivering it. Consider different calls-to-action relevant to your goals. Think outside the box; embrace small experiments; and test, test, test.

The media is a powerful tool that can be used in almost infinite ways to promote social change. Check out our report for more tips, details and case studies from our last ten years helping change-makers use the media to create a better world.

Shayna Samuels and Glenn Turner are co-founders of Ripple Strategies, a Cause Marketing Agency based in Boulder, Colorado. They were an SEA partner for Summit 14.

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.



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