• 18 Apr 2017

The Public Impact Fundamentals can help charities turn ideas into impact

Harriet Loos, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Public Impact
Jake Thorold, Intern for Chief Executive and Public Services and Communities team, Royal Society of Arts

In their guest blog, Harriet Loos, Senior Research Associate for the Centre for Public Impact, and Jake Thorold, Intern for Chief Executive and Public Services and Communities team at the RSA, put forward three essential elements to achieving public impact, calling on government and charities alike to think systemically and act entrepreneurially.

In these tough times, charities must focus on the goal of achieving public impact.

Times are tough in the charity sector. Communities are under stress and demand for services is high, following years of rapid societal change coupled with austerity. Despite encouraging signals from the Prime Minister of her vision of a “shared society”, the pressure shows no sign of letting up. Add Brexit into the mix and the challenges are multiplied. We can expect years of economic uncertainty and increased pressure on funding. At the same time, the concerns of the neediest in society are in danger of slipping down the agenda.

To respond to these challenges we need a better account of how to generate change, deploying creative new approaches to meaningfully impact people’s lives. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) have been working together in recent months to consider what this might look like.

At times like these, it is more important than ever for both charities and government to focus on the goal – public impact – and the best way to get there. But our understanding of how to achieve impact remains patchy. To develop our knowledge base CPI spent much of last year analysing over 200 case studies of policies and initiatives by governments and their partners around the world.

What emerged were some underlying commonalities of successful public impact initiatives. The findings were simple: any effort that aims to achieve impact in the public realm needs three things: a well-designed policy, a proper action mechanism to translate that idea into real world effect, and sufficient legitimacy.

CPI labels these three factors the “Public Impact Fundamentals”. The Fundamentals are a systematic attempt to describe what can be done to maximise the chances of achieving public impact. When considering how charities and governments could think and operate differently, the Fundamentals provide a valuable account of the range of factors that an aspiring changemaker must be alert to in order to generate lasting impact.

Through analysing case studies of both success and failure against this framework, we’ve figured out a couple of things. First, improving your performance on any one of the Fundamentals helps increase your chance of achieving impact. Second, thinking holistically and keeping these elements in balance further improves your chances of achieving your objective.

The Fundamentals can help charities power the journey from idea to impact

While the Fundamentals were originally developed with government actors in mind, we have found that they also resonate strongly with leaders from charities and other social purpose organisations.

This maybe isn’t surprising, as the ingredients of what they need to achieve impact are similar, if not identical. Like government, charities need a well-designed “policy”, sufficient legitimacy for their plans, and an action mechanism to implement them.

Charities should think about how they can operate to make best use of the insights provided by the Fundamentals. The RSA’s advice to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ is helpful here.

Viewing policy development in a systematic way means developing a rich account of the area that you’re hoping to influence, generating the insights to consider policy, action and legitimacy holistically. This knowledge then permits an entrepreneurial approach – spotting the opportunities for realistic change.

Operating in this way could change how charities allocate their resources. By thinking systemically, for example, a charity might come to realise that they lack public support – legitimacy – to act successfully in a given area or challenge. The response might therefore be a public relations campaign to prepare the conditions for an impactful intervention later on.

We hope the Fundamentals can provide a useful heuristic to guide conversations and help charities be as effective as they can possibly be. We owe it to the neediest to bring our best game to the table.

For more information, please read the RSA’s report produced in collaboration with the Centre for Public Impact–Policy with impact: New approaches to policymaking.