Innovation and Impact: Enough Talk, More Do

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If you’re a nonprofit news junkie, you know it’s nearly impossible to go a day without reading or hearing the words “innovation” and “impact.” Just check out the feeds of the nonprofit Twitteratti, where those complex concepts are distilled to 140 characters or less every day.

But for those of us who care about linking rigor to innovation and impact (especially impact assessment), making them more operational, and integrating them more systematically into nonprofit/philanthropic practice, it’s hard to find serious discussion that is more about practice and less about how savvy some of the folks who opine about these concepts want to appear.

Is innovation really innovative?

Innovation, for example, is hardly a new construct; but it would be easy to forget that, given the level of ink that’s been spilled about the need for it in the nonprofit sector. In fact, there have been a number of people in the nonprofit world who, for some time now, have advocated for the sector to embrace new approaches and shake things up periodically. And that’s exactly what’s happened in recent years—due, in some part, to the influx of people from other sectors who’ve brought a much-needed emphasis on results, management, and measurement to nonprofit/philanthropic institutions that, as recently as a decade ago, were somewhat skittish about these processes.

This group has also brought a new, decidedly businesslike vocabulary, at the center of which is “innovation.” Once primarily a buzzword in the private sector, innovation has now become the term du jour in the social sector.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, if innovation is used to connote something new. Lately, though, the concept has been bandied about with nary a thought as to whether what’s being described is indeed unique or whether it’s just old wine in new bottles. Of particular concern is the assumption among some who are new to nonprofits that any idea or approach they advance is a radical departure from what’s gone before.

In fact, a review of the steady stream of studies and reports issued under the guise of innovation reveals much that is merely a restatement or repackaging of ideas and concepts that have already been acknowledged or are being used by people who’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for awhile. As a colleague who works for a philanthropic evaluation company dryly noted, “They take what we already know and put a framework around it.” It’s akin to a bakeoff that allows a competitor to tweak a chocolate cake recipe and give it a new name. When all is said and done, it’s still essentially a chocolate cake.

Thus, the need for more collaboration and partnerships among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors—something that has been trumpeted for more than a decade—is now touted as “shared” or “collective impact.” Advocacy, long-practiced by smart nonprofits and funders, is now “key” to “leveraging impact.” Years of beseeching funders to understand the importance of investments in capacity building and growth/replication is now being echoed by a new crop of players calling for “growth capital” and “scaling.” Program-related investments (PRIs) and mission-related investments (MRIs), which have been around for a while, are now promoted as “essential” components to “impact investing.” The importance of marketing and communications—once seen as anathema to nonprofits but increasingly accepted as standard practice—is now reflected in admonitions to nonprofits to “brand” themselves. The need for nonprofits and foundations to measure results has been a mantra among strategic and serious field leaders for a decade, but today foundation executives new to philanthropy, who reiterate the desire for evaluation and metrics, are lauded as “transformative.”

But there’s more. Some of the same foundation folks who talk about innovation have also been proponents of “assessing impact”—a phrase that has become almost de facto in speeches or articles by philanthropy pundits calling for “more rigor” than has generally been demonstrated in traditional philanthropic circles. Foundations, for example, need to “leverage impact” through better strategy. Businesses can “achieve more impact” by incorporating social responsibility and moving toward a “double [triple] bottom line.” Nonprofit boards need to be more focused on making organizations more accountable so they can “have impact.” Advocacy “leverages impact.” Collaboration “enhances impact.” Cross-sector partnerships “lead to greater impact.”

Few would argue that all of the above aren’t important concepts, no matter how they’re phrased, and that there’s still a need for them to be more deeply embedded in nonprofit and philanthropic practice than they are. There’s also little doubt that reiterating them in different ways helps to reach broader and more diverse audiences about what works and what doesn’t.

What’s of concern to some, though, is the increasing number of reports or studies on so-called innovative ideas or models—or ways to assess impact—that have been generated by individuals who seem to have little or no concern about whether or not what they’re claiming as “the next best thing” is really just “been there, done that.” Of equal concern is that generous support for these kinds of efforts is sometimes being underwritten with foundation dollars—money that might be better used to help organizations implement purportedly innovative ideas rather than present them, again, albeit in snappier packages. (A particularly salient example of the trend of misapplying the notion of innovation is the Social Innovation Fund. Established to serve as an important new funding source for the sector, the Fund later came under criticism for supporting a number of well-established safe bets rather than what most thought of as true innovation.)

But what’s most disturbing to some nonprofit leaders are investments that have been made in so-called innovative initiatives that duplicate existing efforts with a proven track record of success documented through metrics, data, and analysis—all of which investors championing businesslike practices say that they want.

Recently, for example, a senior program officer from a national foundation met with a “social entrepreneur” whose pitch consisted of little more than paper napkin drawing—no business plan, no objectives, no market analysis, and no pilot. Despite knowledge of another highly successful organization with an almost identical mission and structure (and that was preparing to “scale” its substantive and effective infrastructure), the program officer decided to make a multi-million dollar investment in a wholly new endeavor that reinvented another wheel, based on the assumption that the new entrepreneur’s star credentials from another field would be enough to ensure its success. Nine months later, the entire project not only barely got off the ground, it imploded, leaving the investor scrambling to find a home for the remaining shell of the originally lauded “innovative” concept. Meanwhile, the “older” organization has continued to quietly prepare for an international launch that is expected to triple its reach—and with little foundation funding.

This is not to say there isn’t room for more competition in the nonprofit sector; there is, and there is nothing wrong with organizations having to prove their mettle in order to justify serious investments. What there isn’t room for in these times of ever-dwindling resources is getting caught up in the folly of believing that just because something is described as innovative, it is.

Where’s the “do”?

It’s little surprise, then, that collective eyes are beginning to roll when the terms innovation and impact are tossed around with little explication as to what they look like on the ground and within a more systematic framework. So, maybe it’s time to start putting our money where our mouths are and get serious about assessing what, exactly, is true innovation; and, most important, what are the kinds of innovation that lead to real impact—especially those that can be rigorously assessed and measured.

Auspiciously, some foundation and nonprofit leaders seem to be getting the message. According to a recent report by the Center on Effective Philanthropy, assessment has become a high priority for some foundation leaders, who see “progress as having been made on this topic during the past decade.” At the same time, though, most still think that too few foundations are able to measure their overall performance and, especially, impact in ways that would indicate “effectiveness.”

So, what can we do to tamp down the blather and ramp up the “do”?

We can start asking harder questions and pushing for more truthful answers from those preaching about the need for impact and innovation. One suggestion is asking these folks what exactly they are doing in this area, how they are doing it, and what they have discovered—good and bad. At a recent conference, for example, the president of one of the world’s largest foundations was asked what philanthropy needed to do to have more impact. His response: “Do more evaluation . . . develop feedback loops . . .have more staff meetings . . . work with private sector partners.” None of these are new concepts, but it’s as if linking them to impact makes them so. Yet some audience members acted as if they were hearing these bromides for the first time, judging by their eagerness to praise the speaker for his brilliance. No one asked him what his institution was actually doing to “assess impact,” nor, more importantly, what he’d learned as far as what worked and what did not.

We can start questioning evaluation results that were not generated by independent third-party evaluators charged with conducting stringent analyses and given carte blanche to publicly reveal the results—warts and all. As long as firms or organizations with ties to the investors funding evaluation studies receive contracts to conduct these assessments, the results will always be tainted with the perception of bias, no matter how hard the contractors try to maintain objectivity. And as long as investors place caveats on what is reported, we will never gain true understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and what impedes progress and, ironically, future innovation.

We can stop applauding articles that merely restate what we already know. Instead, we must push for more thoughtful, analytical, and serious treatments of how we can better measure impact and make decisions as to what is true innovation and what is not.

We must stop decoupling innovation and impact. Some have made the argument that truly innovative efforts start with big ideas, not small metrics, and, thus, shun attempts to track what they are doing. Without any sense of where innovation starts, how it progresses, and where it ends up, however, there will be little learning as to what was effective, what wasn’t, and why—leading to more uninformed investments and wasted time. A balance is required: funders who invest in innovation must recognize that asking for a full-blown evaluation will probably quell experimentation, but innovators should, at the very least, be able to provide evidence that their efforts are making a difference.

We can call it out when people confuse impact with outcomes or outputs. A well-known funder recently announced that s/he would no longer be supporting organizations that couldn’t demonstrate impact as a function of how many people receive a particular service they offer. Despite this funder’s confusion over the difference between impact and outputs, the announcement not only went unchallenged, it was trumpeted in articles as a “new approach to funding”—largely due to the donor’s reputation as a successful business mogul.

We must begin asking investors whether and to what extent they are incorporating more rigorous impact assessments more systematically and comprehensively into their own efforts. Specifically, we should be asking for at least one concrete example of how they (or others) have methodically assessed not only what grantees have done but also what the impact of both that investment and the grantees’ actions have been beyond the organizations themselves.

Indeed what better measure of impact is there than whether and to what extent an investment has had traction beyond a list of stipulated outputs or outcomes that the organization and/or investor wanted to see? That list could be expanded to include looking at whether and to what extent organizations supported by charitable donations are enhancing the ability of the communities they serve to address issues beyond what they were primarily funded for or within narrow programmatic outcomes. The measure becomes a community’s ability to resolve not just the issue at hand but also problems that may arise in the future—i.e., the program’s social efficacy.

Among funders interested in homelessness, for example, rather than just assessing how many homes have been built or how many loans have been provided or even how many homeless people are now off the street, assessment could include whether the organization was a factor in engaging the larger community around the issue and then addressing it. That would be a powerful measure of impact. Another would be assessing the passage of public policies affecting a broader population than that targeted by the initiative. Yet funders shy away from these activities as being “too complex” or “difficult to measure,” and/or view them as long-term processes whose results few will have the patience to wait around for.

We must begin questioning investors who claim to be “funding innovation” but who, on closer inspection, are really funding newer and splashier versions of projects or models that either have been tried previously (and failed) or already exist but quietly, without fanfare.

In short, those of us who say we care about rigorous impact evaluation as well as true innovation must stop shying away from digging deeper into claims that someone has discovered “the next big thing” or is “assessing impact” but that fail to elaborate on exactly how or what has been learned.


Unlike other domains, the nonprofit sector continues to be skittish when it comes to honest public debate, as well as critical thinking, about ideas and approaches on which we may disagree. Critical thinking, however, is not the enemy of innovation; it’s often what spurs it. And impact assessment is far too important a practice to be given short shrift, given the serious challenges we face as a nation and globally. With that in mind, let’s look forward to less talk and more “do” around innovation and impact assessment.

  • Mat Despard

    This is an article I’ve been waiting some time to appear. Very well said. The irony is that the nonprofit sector is increasingly rigorous in its evaluation approaches (starting with outcome measurement, moving now toward more impact assessments), yet so much of what gets bandied about with the “social innovation” or “social entrepreneurship” label lacks evidence. New ideas – assuming they are really new – are great, but they need to be tested!

  • Debra Berg

    What I’ve discovered over the last 17 years of research and actually going out and interviewing grassroots initiatives, which are working, is that philanthropy hasn’t been interested in these smaller nonprofits’ proven track records. It bothers me that foundations are donating so much on a wing and a prayer because someone titled themselves as a social entrepreneur or “innovator”. I agree with this article wholeheartedly! Philanthropy needs to look at smaller initiatives that have long track records and who have replicated their solutions a few times into other communities. These are proven… let’s expand what’s already working! That’s innovative!

  • Al Huntoon

    Bravo- I couldn

  • Noah Rimland Flower

    I agree wholeheartedly with all that you’ve written here, Cynthia, and all the more as part of a consulting team where we pride ourselves on helping both funders and nonprofits find new approaches to their work that are genuinely innovative.

    I’m glad you brought up the Social Innovation Fund as an example. We worked with Bridgespan on the design of the SIF, and we worked hard to describe what it would mean for it to use even part of the money for truly innovative programs — programs that might not have a proven track record but that showed true promise of breakthrough results. But the original goals set out for the SIF were to “scale what works,” and “what works” is a different thing than “what I believe has the potential for a breakthrough.” Our advice was not ignored, but it also didn’t sway the program’s overall writ.

    That’s the core problem here, I think. “Innovative” is in the eye of the beholder. As you’ve astutely pointed out, many of the beholders are new to the conversation and aren’t thinking very deeply about how they bestow the label. And then there’s the opposite problem, which you’ve also touched on: foundations being skittish about funding an organization that doesn’t have hard numbers from a randomized controlled trial to back up its theory of change.

    What resonates with me most powerfully is your closing point: that all work on social action requires a vibrant public debate. In all of our effort to be “businesslike,” let’s not forget that people show up as donors and as doers because of their point of view — about what is wrong, and how to improve it. All of our talk about “impact” is too often a way to avoid the trouble of debating in public about what progress really means on whatever issue is at stake. To me, that is where “collective impact” and other field-level efforts draw their true potential: providing a forum where the people setting strategy in the field can advance their points of view, allow themselves to be influenced, and (where possible) arrive at a more convergent point of view about what impact really looks like in their work.

  • Ami Ehrlich

    Thank you! This is a great article. I will share widely. As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for many years and now works for an organization that supports other nonprofits, I have felt for a long time that we need to balance innovation with learning from what has come before. There is so much good work out there that does not get fully recognized. However, in order to make any progress on this, funders must invest in good evaluation, which takes time, money and skilled human resources.

  • Prentice Zinn

    This is heresy.

    Do you realize how destabilizing your radical notions could be?

    We philanthropy professionals might be rendered speechless and resort to communicating by grunts and primitive gestures if we can

  • Kathi Jaworski

    I wonder if even Steve Jobs could have passed through the ill-defined gauntlet of innovation and impact related funding guidelines in the early days of Apple. Could he have shown that his idea of a user friendly, aesthetically pleasing, and more expensive interface was based on evidence-based practice? Could he have foreseen all the long term impacts, and been able to point to related efforts that would all but guarantee success? Could he have argued successfully for scaling up rapidly in a marketplace dominated by IBM and Microsoft platforms?

    And if he couldn’t gain traction with his ideas in such a funding environment, what does that tell us about how we are really supporting useful innovation and game-changing impact in the nonprofit sector?

  • Cindy Gibson

    Thanks, Mat! I’ve been waiting for it, too, but it never emerged, so I figured someone had to say it. And, yes, more testing before promotion!

  • Cindy Gibson

    Yes, that deficit frame is getting old. We do need more aggregation… but sometimes the same folks who talk about collaboration and open source sharing are also those who recoil when the time comes to act on those words…

  • Cindy Gibson

    As always, your comments are so thoughtful and insightful. Thank you. And thank you for “getting it” about the point of the piece. Very much appreciated. More discussion always welcome!!

  • Cindy Gibson


    Yes, we need much more evaluation that is rigorous and INDEPENDENTLY conducted. Amen.

  • Cindy Gibson

    This is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time (although the NP sector’s not necessarily seen as a bastion of irreverent wit, eh?). Thank you! (And thank you for not being defensive about the slightest hint of critique…)

  • Cindy Gibson

    Thanks, Kathi. Agree… There’s an old joke in the sector about how the framers of the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t be able to get that “proposal” to be approved under today’s grantmaking standards. 🙂

  • Wendy Leonard

    Great article! My big concern regarding “innovation” is that we are once again chasing the favorite funder phrase of the day. Implementation just does not seem as sexy! We are constantly spinning in the place of innovation, and there is little room for implementation of what we already know on a wide scale. Sadly, implementing what we know becomes “innovative” because we aren’t talking about it. Innovation also tends to focus attention on the innovator rather than the target group. People on the ground are waiting for us to move from patting ourselves on the back for a great idea to actually doing something!

  • Tricia Dell

    Bravo! I indeed throw these words around casually, especially impact vs outcome. Thank you.

  • Aine Creedon

    Post from Laura Chasin:

    Cindy, your provocative piece surfaced my chronic irritation about topics that toss abstract nouns back and forth. I found myself wondering, what if there was a forum where such nouns were banished from conversation and people could only talk about what is “innovative” and “impactful”?

    Adherence to such a ground rule would surface fresh questions concealed by the abstractions. Here’s a sample:
    “Innovative” from whose point of view/knowledge base? The funder’s? The grant seeker’s experience? The grant seeker’s field(s)? A foundation’s archive? The US?

    As a grant seeker, how can I tell if what I propose to do is “innovative” or not? Are there degrees of innovation? (e.g. This is “innovative” as What but not as a How or vice versa, or as a Different Context or a mere Better…)

    What kind of due diligence do I need to do to make sure that I are not reinventing/or funding the reinvention of a wheel? What are the best practices of being diligent about assessing novelty?

    As Noah Flower pointed out “Innovative is in the eye of the beholder” and, my cynical self adds, in the funder’s need to be special (as in “I don’t fund mere problem solving or need meeting

  • Mimi Ward

    Fabulous dialogue and innovative thoughts abound! Oh what is in a word but the ever motivating dollar!
    The federal gov’t actually has a CMS Innovation Center dedicated to seeking and awarding innovation in our medicare system! In fact this center is soon to announce a $500m award to orgs and instituions to fund innovative projects to save medicare $??? Ironic!

  • Nick Deychakiwsky

    I think we’re in a means vs. end catch-22 here. For many, both impact and innovation are an end when they really are means. Innovation for what? needs to be asked more often. There’s the admonition “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!” that should not be forgotten. On the other hand, true innovation is most often not “the great totally original eureka IDEA!” but recombinations of (often small) things (approaches, patterns, models, resources, materials, ideas, etc.) into new and different configurations. In that sense, I don’t begrudge the people putting old wine into new bottles as much and will give them the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they’re trying to remix things so that the result is just a little bit different, fresher, and more useful (i.e. innovative) for the rest of us. Maybe it boils down to just re-articulation, but sometimes new language is helpful too.

    Speaking of new language, can we find another word to use rather than IMPACT? Here’s what the online etymological dictionary has to say: “impact (v.) c.1600, “press closely into something,” from L. impactus, pp. of impingere “to push into, dash against, thrust at” (see impinge). Originally sense preserved in impacted teeth (1876). Sense of “strike forcefully against something” first recorded 1916. Figurative sense of “have a forceful effect on” is from 1935. Related: Impacting. impact (n.) 81, “collision,” from impact (v.). Figurative sense of “forceful impression” is from 1817 (Coleridge).

    Although the word rings true for me as I hope to catch some snippets of college and pro football this weekend, I realize that it means something else in our philanthrojargon and goes more along the lines of the figurative sense that came to the fore in the early 20th century. Nevertheless, there is its subliminal implication – we are going to hit someone with something, or more mildly, force something on them. Which implies a top-down, outside-in, expert-driven technocratic approach to our interventions (another lousy word which implies we’re doing “for” and not “with”). Did using the term “impact” also come from our hard-hitting short-term-results-driven business world? How about effect, or influence, or import, or significance? Although none of these seems quite right to describe that which we are hoping to achieve. Any ideas? I don’t know, I’m not a linguist, but I am tired of feeling bruised by impact. Hope people don’t gang up on me for raising what might be a silly point (would that be collective impact? 🙂

    And speaking of words, “measure” is another one I’m getting tired of. Check out an article by Steven Meyer called Community Philanthropy: Strategies for Impacting Vulnerable Populations on Although the title of the article isn’t the greatest if you’ve just read my previous paragraph, there’s an internal headline which is just great – Noticing Progress Instead of Measuring Impact. I like that.

  • Rich Tafel

    Well said Cindy! Thanks!

  • Ellen Remmer

    Cindy’s willingness to say “the Emperor may be running around nude” is a breath of fresh air. We fall in love with some pretty stupid language and then think we’re actually doing it.

    That said, I think C Christiensen’s work on innovation is helpful – distinguishing “sustaining innovations” from “disruptive” ones, the former being tweaks/improvements to an existing model and the latter being something really different, usually alot cheaper to do and good enough to shake things up. All in search of doing it better, which is a good thing, but let’s be honest about what’s really new… I mean innovative.

  • Cindy Gibson

    Thanks for the great comments… and for clarifying the distinction between different types of innovation.

  • Michael Kisslinger

    I agree with the basic article, but I see a different problem as the root cause. English, with its Germanic and Romance roots, is an incredibly imprecise language. As a result, people can use words to mean anything they want them to mean, and since most people want to be thought of as creative and “innovative” (sorry) they can just repackage something old and take credit for it as new.

    After the Government Results and Performance Act of 1993 (GPRA) every agency, department, and program in the Federal Government had to have it’s own system, for which they paid millions. And yet, if you take the time to compare them, they all say the same things, just with different words. It really doesn’t matter if you are talking about goals, objectives, outcomes, impact, or lollipops. What matters is how you define your terms. That is the real problem. People throw out words like innovation, impact, outcomes, or (sorry again) evidence-based, and assume everyone will understand those words to mean exactly the same. But they don’t.

    By the way, the same thing has happened with money over the years as well. First we asked for money, then we raised funds, then we did development work, then we did advancement work, and now we are generating revenue. I wonder what will be next?

    If we really want to be more rigorous and start turning all that data we have collected into information we can use we first need to all agree on a few basic definition, and on what set of words we will all use. Good luck with that!

  • Cindy Gibson


    Thanks for these great and, as always, thoughtful comments. Agree that it’s always good to rephrase and repackage things periodically (which is acknowledged in the article), but not at the expense of forgetting that the essence of what’s being tweaked isn’t necessarily new. And, yes, can we please start assessing progress? As I mention in the article, evaluating the processes through which communities become stronger may be equally as or more important than the “outcomes” envisioned as the “ends” of those processes.

  • Cindy Gibson

    Yes, it’s always interesting how much money seems to be the motivator for things… including “innovation.” Sigh.

  • Cindy Gibson

    Your last question is the — no pun intended — million dollar query. Wonder if it’ll ever be answered..? Thanks for your comments.

  • Evan Specter

    Stephen Colbert would tip his hat to you!