The days of looking upon all “for good” efforts with equal praise and admiration are behind us. It’s our responsibility as social impact professionals to shine a light on how we know if something is bad-good, neutral-good, or good-good. Saying out loud that a “for good” initiative isn’t as good as it could be is a bit taboo. The vast majority of purpose-driven professionals are openly celebratory… or silent. Talking openly about real results is a catalyst to expand the good-good. Am I saying “good” too much? Good. That’s the point – let’s get specific.
The reason hush-hush approaches among social impact professionals are a problem is because of the massive opportunity cost. There isn’t enough natural urgency around slow-moving problems like biodiversity loss or economic injustice. It’s a major loss when you add up all the people who have a bit of money or a bit of time to give and spend it wrong. There are activities and organizations out there who aren’t contributing as meaningfully to change as others. It feels “good” but is mostly reinforcing the status quo. Without social impact professionals getting more comfortable speaking openly about the bad-good, we hold back resources from flowing to the good-good.
Looking For the Good-Good
Authenticity to the mission
Ensure the people who founded or lead the organization are personally connected to or have experienced the central issue of their mission. It’s not as simple as a scroll through the Our Team page, although (for example) an all-white Board of Directors and executive team for an organization serving Latino/a migrant workers may be all you need to know.
Scale that matches the work
A global issue needs a global scale. Example: migration, national conflict resolution. A neighborhood issue needs a neighborhood scale. Example: addressing a squatter settlement of people with addiction, equal access to green space. Tackling a systemic issue needs to match the scale to the issue. Example: reforming voting practices requires cross-sector collaboration and engagement of multiple layers of government.
Some might say, Carmen, why haven’t you talked about measurement yet? Even being a measurement person, it isn't where I would start. Once you've hit authenticity and scale I'd look more closely at the numbers. In this context, reading an organization’s website or materials should show that they are data-driven in how they learn about their results and communicate success. At the same time, they do not limit themselves to data as the only method to exhibit how they achieve their mission.
Importantly, don’t assume your interpretation of their data is all you need. You’re better off asking someone with expertise in the issue what they take away from the information. Expertise doesn’t refer only to their accolades or educational credentials; it also refers to lived experiences and work experience that you don’t personally have.
Different then the above, prioritization happens before looking at a specific organization’s authenticity, scale, and data.
Part of finding the good-good is choosing the most pressing issue or most effective action. There are different views on what’s most pressing. In my opinion, it’s about the issues that are most harmful to the largest group of people, and the people affected aren’t able to be address it with their own resources. Observing the greatest community need is primary. Individual causes and motivations, such as funding research on a rare disease that affects your family, have their own place and naturally draw significant attention and resources because the call to action is made among groups of friends and family. Those with institutional resources or a motivation to make the world a better place are better suited to consider the issues that plague our country because they are slow-moving and don’t have an obvious owner. They often do not receive the attention and resources they deserve. Examples: advocating for living wages, reducing our consumption, or acting to reverse inequities in education.
After All That, A Clarity Gut Check
While we as corporate social impact professionals are surrounded by evaluations, research, frameworks, models, experts and more – every action or organization should also be able to pass a clarity gut check. If you’ve learned a lot about the issue and the work, when you close your eyes, do you feel that true change is happening? Is there a clear fit between the problem and the solution? This gut check counterbalances feeling peaks of inspiration. You’re asking yourself if you were experiencing the problem described, would you want the solution you’re about to support. In fact, if you’re feeling overly inspired and driven by tugged-upon heart strings, it is important to check-in with yourself. If you’re in a position of privilege, are you feeling guilty? Is the founder particularly dynamic? Is the website a really good sales tool? In all these ways bad-good might be giving you good-good vibes.
Acknowledging It's Not Easy
Expertise or not, we are all human. Behavioral science can explain all the different reasons why we don’t always make optimized choices. For example, even though I’m well informed, I still feel annoyance creep in that the most effective environmental individual action requires lots of money (home insulation) I’d rather spend on something else (family vacation) and should dictate what I should eat (more plants) and shouldn’t eat (dairy since I’m already off beef). It’s, shall we say it, an inconvenient truth, that humans who are informed and care still lose motivation to act upon what they know would matter most. What helps me with the potential lost motivation is to consider the top 3 most effective, good-good actions and pick one that feels feasible to do. This relates especially to the prioritization item above. Some choice but not too much centralizes resources on the most pressing issues, allowing incremental progress and steady momentum.
We can’t assume we still have the luxury of just doing “something good.” If we’re going to not just talk about our expertise but live it, we have to increase how comfortable we are on making changes and speaking up more to focus ourselves and others on the good-good.