The world of social innovation can be a little mysterious - there are a lot of exaggerated stories and common misconceptions about how change really works. Clearing up these myths can help us to feel more confident stepping into this impact-driven world, enabling us to start from a grounded, realistic perspective about social change and the people who make it happen.
In this article, we'll investigate four of the most common myths about social impact, and help you to get a clearer picture of what this work actually looks like.
One of the biggest and most unhelpful myths about social change is that for every big social problem, there's one perfect solution out there which will solve it completely and permanently - and that all we need is someone clever enough to come along and find it.
This myth draws attention away from the real work of social change, which is usually long-term, collaborative, and building on a long history of change efforts in any given field. The important shift in thinking needed here is away from solutions and towards progress - rather than aiming for one magical solution (which often leads to wasted resources and unimpressive outcomes), changemakers can seek to identify how their efforts can make the greatest contribution to real progress on an issue, hand in hand with experts and people with lived experience.
Another unhealthy story that gets told about social change work is that it centres around a few key heropreneurs - individual changemakers or organisations whose brilliant ideas and tireless work have made them singlehandedly responsible for solving key social problems.
There are, of course, plenty of awesome people working in social impact - but when we focus on individual impact 'celebrities' rather than the teams, alliances and communities who support every social change effort, we give the impression that social innovation is a solo sport, and attract newcomers who want to be seen to make an impact, rather than being motivated by actually making an impact.
The heropreneur story also contributes to a lot of would-be changemakers starting new ventures and programs which crowd the space, replicate work that's already being done, and compete with existing initiatives for funding, clients and other resources.
New ventures are sometimes needed, but often there are other, less flashy levers for change which could make a greater contribution to progress on the same issue, which are ignored by the heropreneur.
Related to the issue of heropreneurs is the white saviour complex, a problem that can arise when white changemakers set out to make an impact on issues affecting people of colour. This complex is at play when white changemakers see themselves as 'saving' people of colour from a given problem.
At best, this is disempowering for people of colour, who are cast in the role of helpless victim in their own story. At worst, this kind of thinking can replicate unequal power dynamics and colonial structures by centralising power in the hands of white changemakers rather than empowering people of colour to solve their own problems, and can result in solutions that nobody asked for and which don’t solve the right problem.
When working on social issues that affect any vulnerable people or communities, and especially people of colour, it's very important that those people and communities have a seat at the table and are involved in designing and delivering any new solutions.
The fourth social change myth we'll tackle here is the noble volunteer: the pervasive idea that nobody in the world of social impact does, or even should, get paid. The problematic idea behind this myth is that if people really cared about a social issue, they'd volunteer their time for the greater good - a totally unsustainable expectation that's very rarely found in other kinds of work!
The reality is that most non-profits, NGOs and other for-purpose organisations operate as businesses just like any other, selling products and services to generate profits and employing paid staff who often earn salaries and benefits. The difference between these organisations and regular for-profit businesses is that their profits are typically used (to various extents, depending on their exact structure) to keep making an impact and advocating for change, rather than to pay dividends to shareholders or bonuses to executives.
It's definitely okay to make an impact and get paid at the same time, and plenty of people are doing it!
We hope this article has helped to clarify some of the biggest myths and misconceptions circulating about social impact. If you've been inspired and you'd like to learn more about how you can make a positive impact in your work, check out our social impact program The Good People, and stay tuned for an interactive online version coming very soon!
Earlier this month we had the pleasure of once more running our flagship design bootcamp, Design Jam. Over two big days, our participants took on the ambitious challenge of using the design thinking skills and tools they were learning to create solutions for real social impact problems.