Facilitating Models of Social Impact

I will confess that I am a visual learner.  I like to not only see the big picture but to be able to draw it as well.  This inclination towards a visual process has served me well in facilitation.  In fact, I have staked out the position that visual learning is a critical facilitation skill.  Recently, I have been thinking about the use of visuals to convey Social Impact. If asked, how many agencies could draw a clear relationship between  the programs and services they offer  and the social impact that is created as a result of what they do? While visualizing social impact may seem like a fairly simple concept it is under-utilized as a tool to communicate the core social change embedded in the mission, vision, programs and services of organizations.

Recently, I have been working on several projects that involve helping agencies articulate a plan for growth and sustainability.  None of these groups have visual models of impact and it becomes a powerful exercise to help these teams create a visual representation of their social impact. While there are likely many paths to creating a visual social impact model, I would like to outline four models to introduce the concept.

Pathway Model:  One of the more generic processes of creating a social impact model is to describe the pathway between the current reality and the future vision. For example, if an agency envisioned a community where 80% of children are reading at grade level in 5th grade and the current statistic was that only 66% of students met that benchmark a pathway approach would anchor 66% of kids at one end and 80% of kids at the other end.  The facilitator would then lead the group through an open-ended conversation to describe what happens between those anchor points as the pathway steps that would close the gap.  If facilitated well, creating such a pathway would reveal if there is capacity in the agency to create the desired social impact. The weakness of a generic pathway model is that it is open-ended and prone to subjectivity because it does not lock groups into thinking in a structured cause-to-effect process.

Logic Model: While somewhat academic, developing a logic model is an excellent way to visualize social impact. One of the reasons a logic model works well is that it offers a framework for working sequentially from resources to impact.  Here is a link to an excellent guide on creating logic models developed by the WK Kellogg Foundation. Developing a logic model starts with creating the linear categories of: Input, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, and Impact.  The facilitation process can start with either end of the continuum and moving either forward or backwards.  So if your Impact vision is that 80% of 5th grade children reading at grade level, then the first backward question is “What Outcomes do you need to see as milestones towards that Impact?” Outcomes that support the impact might include improved test scores, policies changed, number of school institutionalizing programs.  Moving one more step back to Outputs, the group would then describe the service delivery indicators that could cause the Impact. Output indicators might be such things as the number of children participating in programs, number of parents being engaged in the process, etc.  Further back, Activities describe what the organization does to cause the Outputs and, further back still, the Resources describe the assets that the agency has to dedicate to the task.  Conversely drawing a logic model can start with Resources and move forward to Impact.  Logic models work as a visual orientation because it forces a team or an agency to consider the relationship between resources and impact.  Are the resources adequate to produce the activities, outputs and outcomes that create the desired impact?  If not then the choices are to either scale back the impact or increase the resources dedicated to the change effort.

Outcome Mapping:  Another model for visualizing social impact is an outcome map. Similar to a logic model an outcome map sequentially considers the organizational process from strategies to impact.  A useful guide on creating an Outcome map comes out of Organizational Research Services’ experiences evaluating an Annie E. Casey Foundation projects. One difference between using outcome mapping and a logic model is that outcome mapping has been used extensively to describe social impact in the context of community driven processes. Outcome mapping is better tailored to encourage full participation of stakeholders and the community.  An excellent in-depth exploration of a community and participatory approach to outcome mapping can be found at the International Development Research Centre.

Social Impact Model™ A fourth visual representation of Social Impact can be found in the trademarked model of describing social impact that was developed by Root Cause.  The Root Cause model, bridges the gap between problem and solution through the clear representation of the Strategies and underlying Operational Model iteratively informed by clear Social and Economic Indicators and Organizational and Performance Indicators.  A full description of the Social Impact Model is found at the Root Cause website.

The point of outlining four models for describing social impact is not to suggest one approach over another or to prescribe how visualizing social impact “must” be done.  The purpose is to introduce several models that can frame the concept of making explicit the connection between the mission, vision, and program structure of an organization and the Social Impact of the organization.  In an age of accountability and the focus on outcomes and change, organizations need to be able to clearly articulate what social impact they influence or cause.  Finally, while describing social impact may appear to be a “nonprofit” concern, the increasing focus of private sector companies on a “double” or “triple” bottom line suggests that describing social impact is a model for any social enterprise.

It is my belief that the effective nonprofit organizations of the future are those who are clear about their purpose and their social impact and can draw the picture to illustrate the connection.  As a result, facilitators need to be skilled in the process and visualization required to help organizations create a social impact model.


Photo Credit: jamessoladujoye


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.