In today’s world, creating a positive impact is not just a moral obligation, but an opportunity – and a competitive advantage.
Customers, investors and employees expect businesses and institutions to go beyond profits and meaningfully contribute to solutions to social and environmental challenges. And it can be overwhelming to know where to start and where to go deeper.
Below, we explore 11 ways businesses and organizations in Canada can create lasting impact, from choosing the right incorporation model to measuring impact.
1. Impact modelling: Create an (impact) plan
First step? Plan? Yeah, sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? But having a plan that demonstrates how and why you will bring about change will help you focus on who is impacted, who is contributing, and who you can work with to improve shared outcomes. You will waste less time and money getting to meaningful outcomes. And ultimately your plan will inform better strategy, decision making, and risk mitigation.
Need some tools to help? We like to start with a Theory of Change (find Purppl’s here), which is a logic model that helps you map out the necessary strategies and activities against the outcomes you’re seeking.
It’s an excellent tool that will support you to communicate, strategize and operationalize the change you seek to make in the world.
Next, you’ll need a plan.
We like to keep this simple, using a One-Page Plan template, which integrates your Theory of Change with Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) to help teams set and track progress on their impact plan.
All together, these tools make up your impact model.
2. Align your incorporation model and certifications with your intended impact
One way to root impact into your organization is through its incorporation model.
If you’re at the beginning of your journey and aren’t yet incorporated, you might be exploring the benefits and challenges of becoming a co-operative (owned by its users, suppliers or workers), Community Contribution Corporation, charity or non-profit. We’ll get to that in a minute.
If you’ve already incorporated, it’s unlikely you’ll change – rarely does this happen or make sense. However, those who are really determined can change a company to a Community Contribution Company, a hallmark of which is that it allocates a portion of profits, assets or both to community purposes. You can also become a certified B Corp, which is assessed for overall social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, transparent and rigorous evaluation process.
And you could get stamps of external validation, like becoming a Living Wage Employer who pays employees a wage sufficient to cover the basic costs of living in their specific community (available to non-profits and for-profits) or other accreditations, like Imagine Canada, which indicates a level of organizational excellence and credibility for non-profits and can support fundraising.
All of these give you a bit of a guide to doing better, most of it focused on internal policy and practice that influence your environmental, social and governance performance. For example, B Corp certification includes standards and guidelines to improve your impact through the lenses of governance, workers, community, the environment and customers.
But, be careful: Being a B Corp or having some other accreditation does not make you impactful by itself. You need to go deeper.
If you haven’t incorporated, we urge you to start with a plan (see #1). Get clear on your impact model, then your business model (how will you ensure your intended change is sustainable), and then consider your incorporation model.
And chat with a lawyer. (We know it’s hard to find a lawyer who understands social enterprise/impact, but you might try the folks at Lawson Lundell, who are slowly growing an understanding of social enterprise.)
Don’t rush into the incorporation choice. Incorporation as a mechanism to embed impact is really relevant in an age where many nonprofits are adding customer revenue to diversity and de-risk, and many for-profits are trying to be “more impactful.”
Co-ops, often forgotten and stuck in the middle, are impactful from the ground up with their shared ownership model. Co-ops exist solely because a group of people experience a need and have found a collective way to satisfy it; the profit motive of a co-op is purely in service of continuing to satisfy that need.
Hybrids like Community Contribution Companies marry the benefits of nonprofit and for-profit models. They are well set up to sell a product or service, can attract diverse types of capital, have permanent restrictions on directing profit towards social purpose, must publish a public annual report, and are required to have a board of directors.
But we’re a bit biased. Purppl is a Community Contribution Company. It gives us credibility as a social enterprise (because of the permanent profit distribution requirements) and flexibility to build and sell services like a small company.
- Here’s an old but still relevant guide that explores incorporation models for social enterprises.
- Here’s a helpful blog post from Futurpreneur about Choosing a Legal Structure for Social Purpose Business.
But keep in mind there’s lots of complexity that just doesn’t get answered in a blog or a guide so we recommend getting out there and talking to folks who have explored these different models and options. Ask them why they chose the model they chose or invested in getting third-party certification or accreditation, and weigh that against your impact plan.
3. Ownership models: Shifting assets into community hands
Distributing wealth, ownership and assets to the many, versus the few, is a big lever in reducing inequality and building lasting impact. Capitalism has by and large put the assets and capital into the hands of a privileged few.
If you want to reverse the ongoing harmful and problematic effects of capitalism and colonization, focus on pre-distribution and redistribution of income, wealth, time and power (and other things like dismantling the patriarchy, etc.).
Wealth includes land, money, enterprise, technology and knowledge.
Consider democratically owned structures like coops, community owned structures like nonprofits, or employee ownership of company shares. Hybrid structures can force major shifts to profit distribution and can also enable community ownership through share structure.
Doing this work to pre-distribute and redistribute ownership will surely help to create more equity and inclusion.
For a deep dive, read Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.
4. Procurement: Making sustainable and ethical purchasing decisions
Procurement, or using your purchasing power, is an important lever for businesses and organizations to create sustainable impact, with implications for labour standards, environmental practices and local economies.
This means buying products and services for your business or organization from small local businesses, nonprofits and social enterprises. Pay attention to the climate impacts and the social impacts of what you are purchasing. Look for BIPOC-owned or -led organizations to buy from.
Often companies look to create social impact by giving money, but fail to look at using their procurement budget to support social impact. Procurement budgets are always much bigger and more sustainable than donation or corporate social responsibility budgets. Nonprofits themselves often overlook their own procurement as a way to build impact.
In many cases, a small impact company, social enterprise or nonprofit would much rather have a regular, reliable customer like you than a one-time financial contribution.
By prioritizing sustainable and ethical sourcing, businesses and organizations can reduce their negative impact and promote positive change.
Don’t know where to start? Call your favourite nonprofits and ask them what you could buy from them.
Or look at Purppl’s clients and alumni page; pretty much all of them have a product or service you can buy from them ranging from bike rentals, furniture and composting services to retreats and mental health counselling.
Or head over to Buy Social Canada for a growing list of social enterprises you can buy from.
5. Services/Products: Designing solutions for social and environmental challenges
Creating impactful products and services requires more than just adding a social, cultural or environmental component. It involves understanding the root causes of the problem, involving stakeholders in the design process, measuring the outcomes and impact, and adjusting to improve.
There are many great examples.
PEOPLE provides training and creates partnerships that lead to paid employment opportunities for people who use drugs and/or people with lived experience in homelessness. You can hire them for services for your company or organization.
Woodshop Coop sells custom wood furniture, millwork and metalwork for home and business. They focus on using reclaimed, locally sourced materials and only environmentally approved finishes, while providing meaningful employment to people who have faced barriers to employment.
Venture Training runs a bike shop that repairs and sells used bikes while creating employment opportunities for folks with barriers to employment. Similarly, Elevation Outdoors rents bikes and uses the revenue to help fund their sport programs for youth.
Social enterprise is a growing, global movement. About one-third of all startups globally are putting impact first, at the core of their company, not as an afterthought or corporate social responsibility initiative. You can find your place in the movement.
6. DEI: Building a culture and organizational model that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not just buzzwords but essential elements of creating impact. A DEI-focused culture and organizational model can attract and retain diverse talent, improve decision-making and increase innovation.
DEI is a big topic. And I don’t have the expertise or lived experience to be guiding others on DEI. However, I have learned some things I can share about how a focus on DEI is critically important to any organization’s impact strategy:
System problems are best solved with people, not for people. Solutions will be better if you include diverse experiences and identities, especially those who have lived experience in the problem you are contributing to solving. Keep in mind, “with us not for us.”
DEI initiatives require respectful relationships. You can’t just consume knowledge from reading and taking workshops, and host workshops. Real, respectful relationships build the trust that’s required for meaningful action to take place.
Do the hard work of building relationships and the rest will be easier. This will also help to reduce the tokenism problem which often emerges when organizations focus on DEI.
Pay attention to equity, not just diversity and inclusion. Pay equity. Living wage. Executive compensation limits. Asset pre-distribution and redistribution (see section three of this blog). And more.
There is nearly no end to this work as a mechanism for impact. Colonization, racism, bias and more are a part of nearly every system, organization and person.
Commit deeply. The status quo of many systems and organizations is harmful; silence or inaction is damaging. To improve, it takes a constant, forever effort and deep commitment to stay humble and curious.
7. Giving: Don’t stop with donating to causes and organizations that align with your mission
Giving, or philanthropy, can be impactful if done well. Put power in the hands of those who the money will benefit, let them decide where and how the money should be spent.
Philanthropy is about the beneficiary, not you; temper your own expectations about recognition or celebration of your gift. If it’s welcomed, a respectful relationship with regular giving is better than a one-time gift.
Corporate giving in particular can be aligned with your own mission and values. If you are giving from a company, try to bring more than cash. Often, ongoing access to your company resources are more valuable than the relatively small amount of cash you may be able to donate.
Go beyond donating. Consider becoming a customer of a nonprofit who you are donating to. Or consider that partnership could include access to your employees and expertise, network, space, equipment and other valuable assets. These other assets can often amplify the impact of your donation in unexpected ways.
8. CSR: Incorporating social and environmental responsibility into business operations
Corporate social responsibility is a good starting point, and includes many of the concepts mentioned in this blog.
We urge you to go beyond the idea that purpose or impact is a small part or limited team effort, and bring impact to the centre of everything you do as a company. You can create more impact with your people, products, services and assets than you can with just your profit.
9. Partnership: Collaborating with other organizations to achieve shared goals
If you are working on system problems, partnerships are the only way to meaningfully contribute to solutions. The problems are big enough, and deep enough, that you cannot solve them alone.
Rather than building a solution, look around the community or ecosystem and identify others who are leading solutions. Ask them what they need help with. Lift them, support them, walk alongside them. And lead if and when it becomes appropriate.
Be humble in your approach to partnership and impact. You don’t need to take credit for it; just enjoy how good it feels to help and work together. You may also not be the best person or organization to lead or do the work; just step back, help, build a respectful relationship, and be open to helping in ways you didn’t expect. Aim to be a good ally before you become a leader.
Being in partnership, or relationship, builds the trust and hope that lead to action. That’s when impact is truly amplified.
10. Advocacy and policy: Using your voice to influence systemic change
Stories are the emotional, compelling parts of system change and social impact. They are part of the advocacy needed to move from individual, quiet actions to movements and policy change that actually change the system.
In our work with Indigenous organizations, we’ve learned that not speaking up, and not advocating, is harmful because it allows the current status quo to persist. And the status quo is not acceptable. We expect this reality is similar for people in other parts of the social movements.
Advocacy can be as simple as speaking up, and calling people into a movement. It can mean using your voice and communication channels to share stories that otherwise might not be heard. Or using advocacy to demonstrate solidarity and make it clear that you support change.
Policy change can start internally within your organization. Consider adding or improving policy around hiring, board composition, executive pay, ownership, pre-distribution and redistribution of assets, living wage, sick leave, maternity leave, health benefits, procurement and more. There are many many ways to use policy as a tool to create impact and equity.
Also consider participating in municipal, provincial, federal or sector-specific policy shifts. Policy changes can create significant impact and equity improvement. Some examples include the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the recent policy shift by the BC government to ensure prescription contraceptives are free. These were both years-long advocacy and policy efforts that have and will substantially improve impact and equity.
Consider finding voices and leaders to support in policy shifts that they are already working on; these efforts often take time and many, many supporters.
11. Impact measurement: Clarifying your intended impact, creating a theory of change, and measuring your outcomes
Impact measurement is a critical mechanism for improving the impact of your business or organization. The Common Approach provides a simple framework for how to do good measurement:
- Describe your intended change (see “Theory of Change” in the first section of this post, above)
- Use indicators
- Collect useful information
- Gauge performance and impact
- Communicate and use results
We go into detail about these approaches in our blog post, Five Essential Practices of Good Impact Measurement.
Doing these essential practices will help you learn what’s working (and what’s not), improve your practices, and improve your storytelling of the impact you’re creating – which supports advocacy and proliferation of impact.
Measurement can be really overwhelming. Don’t try to measure too much at once, just get started. Pay attention to the measurement burden you place on those who you are asking for measurement from. And be mindful of the power imbalance, bias, and inequity that can be embedded in measurement.
Becoming a regenerative enterprise or organization that addresses the root causes of systemic inequity is a modern day requirement. It’s no longer acceptable to extract, capitalize, and “give back” and keep the status quo of inequality in place.
We believe that what’s most important in building impact is that you have an impact plan, measure the results and improve your activities, and build partnerships and relationships that support collective action. Doing these things make other impact activities easier.
There is a large, global movement of people and organizations working towards a future that upholds collective wellbeing, equity and the health of the air, land, and water.
You have a place in that movement.