Eric Ressler On Communicating Social Impact And Connecting With Philanthropy Opportunities — Impact Boom | Social Impact Blog & Podcast | Global Changemaker Community | Social Innovation, Enterprise, Design
What do you believe are the key challenges (and opportunities) emerging for social impact organisations?
I think there’s a lot of opportunities. There’s been a fairly seismic shift in the culture, understanding and awareness around the scope, scale and importance of some of these issues. I think the pandemic has given the entire world in one degree or another the opportunity to really reflect around what’s most important to us and what we care about, and to do a large cultural reset. I think there’s been a huge renaissance to speak of people who really want to find their own purpose in work and life through their community.
social impact organisations have something that other organisations will never have, and that is an authentic built-in purpose to their work in their DNA.
Not a cause marketing campaign, not something that they have to figure out how to position to fit the latest cultural trend, but something really authentic and key to what it is that they’re doing and why they exist in the first place. We’re all looking for community and connection as human beings. If you can invite people into a community and provide that connection in a meaningful way, whether that’s the general population for a grassroots organisation or a key group of influencers or decision makers, that’s a huge opportunity all these other organisations will never be able to match. Everything that they’re doing is really marketing at the end of the day. It’s not about actually creating change. There are some exceptions to that, but a lot of these campaigns you see coming out from large corporations are really just trying to tap into people’s yearning for purpose. But people can see through that. A lot of times it’s actually led to backlash against those organisations, because people are calling them out on not being authentic.
The superpower of the social impact organisation is that your mission is authentic and it always will be.
It’s really clear that if you communicate that in a way which is authentic and compelling, and you use some of the same strategies and invest in doing your branding, communications and digital experiences well, then that combination can really help organisations break out of that starvation cycle and scale their impact and attract a larger community of supporters.
What is the relationship between social impact organisations and philanthropists, and why is this connection important?
There are a couple different ways this connection shows up. I think the first example would be talking generally about non-profits or organisations that are funded primarily through gifts and grants. There’s a lot of organisations where their funding comes either solely or primarily through government grants, institutional foundations and philanthropies, or even large net worth individuals who are writing really large gifts. In that case, the relationship it should be is a partnership, but it’s not always that way. Sometimes it feels like these social impact organisations are at the mercy of the funder because the money’s flowing in that direction. But really, for it to be successful for both parties, it should be a partnership. It should be approached more as a partnership, where one party is providing resources, connection and attention, and the other party (being the non-profit) can take those resources, connections and turn them into impact because of their expertise and capacity as an organisation to actually do the work.
A lot of times philanthropists and funders are writing checks, but they need to be doing more than just writing checks. good ones are empowering their organisations.
I think with venture capitalists, a lot of the times their return is on impact instead of finances. When it comes to social enterprises, it’s a little bit different because social enterprises typically have (I think by definition) a market-based approach to funding, at least partially. They’re funding their organisation by selling a product, service or a suite of both things. Patagonia are one of the more commonly referenced ones, but they still have an authentic commitment to social impact. It’s not a social responsibility initiative, it is core to how they make decisions at the highest level of leadership in terms of how they run the organisation and the choices they make. Those organisations sometimes get funding through venture capitalists or impact investors to help them scale. We’ve worked with some impact investors before and one of the common problems is there’s this concept of the missing middle in the funding cycle. It’s pretty easy, but it can be much more possible for an organisation to get some seed money, to get a proof of concept out there and to start building momentum. It can even be easy for an organisation that’s got to prove a model to get funding to help them scale. There’s this missing middle in between the two where they’ve got a proven concept, but they haven’t really been able to fully operationalise and get that funding can be difficult. That’s a case where a venture capitalist or more likely an impact investor might come in to help provide some of that risk capital to help that organisation really scale and reach its full potential. There’s a lot of different intricate relationships between the funding and impact side. The organisation’s actually doing the work the way that we like to talk about it, and I think that is changing a lot. There’s a lot of folks out there challenging some of the ways that this sector has been structured for a long time. I think there’s a really good reason for that. A lot of times the organisations that are being funded might not always be selected in a way that is right. There’s a lot of implicit bias and frankly even sometimes racist roots to how some of these organisations have been formed, especially when talking about colonial wealth and how we need to essentially decolonise this sector. A lot of philanthropists in the past, and even in the present have come to grow their wealth in ways that have exploited people. Maybe they’re even funding solutions to problems that their companies helped create. There’s a lot to dig into here; I don’t mean to criticise all philanthropists. There’s a lot of people in the space who are authentically doing really good work and have earned their money fairly. There is also a little bit of an unhealthy dynamic that can form. I think we need to watch out as a sector, and we need to hold folks accountable who have exploited people and are trying to essentially write checks to feel better about the fact that’s happened.
What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating a positive social change?
With regards to an organisation that’s really inspiring, we’re working with an organization right now called STEM From Dance. They’re currently based out New York area, but they’re expanding their programs really ambitiously and are doing such good work. They’re great people that I would love to give a quick shout out. Their program is really unique in that. They’re trying to help girls who traditionally might not have opportunities or resources to get into STEM careers. They’re doing it through a really unique and creative way of combining dance. technology and allowing young girls, mostly black and brown girls to combine those two modalities into one. The founder Yamilée was really inspired to do this from her personal experiences. Being accepted into a program at MIT and looking around and realising she was one of the only black women at this organisation or in her class and wanting to change that. Also, she tapped into her roots as a dancer and the feeling that she got dancing, that creative flow and expression, and she wanted give other girls the opportunity to have that same feeling through STEM based activities and a career path that would help sustain them and provide success in the future. It’s a really cool combination and unique approach. They’re just really good people making a good impact. I would highly recommend folks check them out.