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Has the Word 'Impact' Lost Its Impact?

April 23, 2014

(Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in
Indianapolis. In his previous post, he shared a design strategy for resource-constrained development pros.)

Feldmann-headshotTwo years ago, I wrote an article about the use of the word innovative in our field. The gist of the article was that those who trumpet the fact they are innovative probably aren't, and that, conversely, truly innovative organizations aren't in the habit of publicly defining themselves as "innovative."

In this article I want to look at another word that is getting a workout. It's not sustainability, community, or empower -- although our sector could walk away from all three of those and not be any worse for it.

No, the word I want to consider is impact.

March and April are conference season in the nonprofit sector, which means I have plenty of opportunities to hear what other fundraisers and nonprofit marketers are doing to inspire donors to give. Recently, I got together with some fellow fundraisers at one of these conferences to talk about our different approaches to asking for money. During our conversation, I heard the word impact (in its various forms) used at least five times. In fact, when I think about it, the word was everywhere at that particular conference, from exhibit booths, to program materials, to live Twitter feeds from sessions with titles such as:

  • Impact Investing
  • How to Get Donors to Understand Your Impact
  • Impact Fundraising – Truly Getting Donors to Give to Your Cause
  • Marketing Impact to Your Volunteers
  • Training Your Board on Your Mission and Impact

I mean, if the word had a publicist, she'd be getting rich from a job well done!

As you might imagine, after a couple of days of this I began to examine my own use of the word. Surrounded by others who spoke the language fluently, I realized I had adopted their patterns of speech and even used the word five times in the presentation I gave at the conference.

Okay, so it's difficult to operate in the nonprofit sector and avoid the word altogether. And check your mail when fundraising season rolls around and…well, you know what I mean:

"Our organization impacts the lives of children in urban neighborhoods."

"We are impacting families in your community."

"David was profoundly impacted by the mentor our program provided."

I'll be the first to admit I'm not an expert on words and their use, but step back with me and think about the word impact. Used as a noun, the word suggests change, presumably for the better. Creating impact is at the very center of nonprofit work, and fortunately we live in a day and age when organizations around the globe are having an impact on the lives of the people they serve.

Now, consider this: Have you ever been in a meeting with a potential donor in which, without prompting from you, he or she uses the word impact? Probably not, right? And the reason: It's our word, not theirs. Indeed, when I talk with donors, they never use the word. They'll talk about helping others, or giving back, or changing something for the better and are usually happy to support a cause that they connect with on both an emotional and intellectual level. But I never hear them talk about "impact" or "impacting" this or that problem.

In fact, I believe that in our neverending efforts to get the attention of donors and, well, impact their opinion of us favorably, we've grown too comfortable with our own use of the word. And that's a problem, because phrases like "Our organization impacts the lives of children," or "We are impacting families in low-income neighborhoods," or "David was profoundly impacted by the mentor" don't really mean anything. They are a lazy and inauthentic way of saying something about your work without really saying anything at all.

That's a shame because nonprofits are purpose-driven entities that exist to help real people with real challenges and solve real problems. No, if your organization wants to cut through the clutter with its messaging, don't tell potential donors and contributors that your efforts are having an "impact"; explain it:

"More than 70 percent of the children in low-income neighborhoods who participate in our early-childhood literacy program can read before they enter kindergarten."

Or:

"Ninety percent of individuals with a disability who sign up for our job-placement services manage to secure a job that pays them a living wage within ten months."

It's simple, really: If your organization is trying to rally support and have its cause resonate with donors, it needs to craft messages and share examples that convey the actual impact it is creating. The emphasis should be on the outcomes of the work, not on the word impact itself.

So, ask yourself: Is our organization telling donors about the impact it is creating, or is it showing them? If the answer is "telling," maybe it's time for your development and communications people to sit down with your executive director to talk about a new messaging strategy.

 -- Derrick Feldmann

Comments

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Well said. In the tech world our word of constant overuse is "disruptive." By the number of times alone that the word is used you'd think that everyone is disruptive, which of course translates to: very few are.

I like the way you reposition the word. In fact, it has implications for both how people can visually show impact and measure it, too. In lean analytics one of the signs of true progress is...

a) focus on a key metric - what is the one thing that if you do it right will drive all of your other goals?)

b) make that metric provable, and relationship based - if we create this early childhood ed literacy initiative, then at least 70% of the participants will be able to read by the time they enter kindergarten.

Yes, there is a need to show donors, love the desire to actualize the word, bring it down to earth.

But I think there is a new kind of donor, a new audience for the word, 'impact'. The word ‘impact’ and its intended audience is a move to broaden a culture of donor giving beyond the presumed privileged largess of the wealthy.

Giving is passive. Once I give a gift, the gift becomes the recipient’s prerogative. I know many donors, of all types choose to be engaged, but the word ‘gift’ implies letting go.

Impact is active, engaging. --If you understand you are having an impact you take responsibility, your inputs both require and inspire a longer term engagement as you want to see the results of your donation. Impact implies stewardship beyond charity. Impact is somehow beyond the mere sweetness of giving, acknowledging the very real potential of a bitter sweet result in both small and large donations.

Well-written, Derrick, and on point. Impact is one of those words - like "robust" - that becomes popular and then often fades away.

You've hit on a tendency in our business - to communicate and operate from our own perspectives rather than those of our donors prospects. You see this with not only direct mail, but also with special events. It's not unusual for planners are worried about not repeating last year's menu or look when, I'm quite confident, most of last year's attendees have long-since forgotten what they ate or how the venue was decorated.

After mulling it over further, I agree more fully that "impact" implies a note of self-importance along with a contrasting subnote of insecurity. If we have to convince ourselves of our "impact" by using inflated and vague language, then perhaps we first need to do a gut-check about what we and our organizations are really doing in lives of our constituents.

"Impact" should never stand alone as a verb, as in "impacting" or "impacted" or even worse as an adjective, the woeful "impactful," which should be banned. Applying these rules would reduce the overuse.
But "sustainability" is a word I love to use, still striving to get across to folks with good hearts that you must have a workable plan to do forever (or until accomplished) what you wish would be done, if you want to be impactful!

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