7 Leading Social Impact Frameworks to Add to Your Problem Solving Toolkit

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

Creating social impact at scale involves solving problems – often systemic problems – that haven’t been solved before. And to do that effectively, we need approaches that are collaborative, adaptable, and human-centered. 

There are a lot of different frameworks out there, and you don’t have to be an expert in all of them to create real impact. In fact, to work in social impact inherently means you will encounter moments when you do not know what to do next. In those times, it’s important to have a robust toolkit of frameworks that will guide you on the most impactful path forward.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to collaborating on complex problems, the 7 frameworks below are valuable additions to your problem-solving toolkit that can be combined, layered, and applied to different stages of the process to generate meaningful outcomes. 

Systems Mapping

One of the unique things about social enterprises is that, by definition, they exist not only to create sustainable social and/or environmental impact, but also to put pressure on the larger systems around them to become more sustainable and equitable. 

For that reason, if you want to best support a social enterprise, you need to understand the broader system that it is operating in, and the main stakeholders involved. There are a lot of different ways to do this, but we like to recommend the Systems Mapping framework from FSG in particular because it includes an open-source toolkit that you can download for free. The table below breaks down some of the tools included in the FSG framework, which are divided into visual tools and conversational tools.

FSG Systems Mapping tools

A systems map is something that you can work through in partnership with the social enterprise you’re supporting to develop a picture of who the different actors are, key trends, different timelines, and even the ecocycle of specific products. Other tools, like asset-based community development from DePaul University, appreciative inquiry, and the world café method, can be used to create a safe space for exploration of diverse perspectives to help you work in partnership more effectively with people from different backgrounds.

So, when you’re in the early stages of solving a problem, starting with a systems map is a great way to get to lay of the land in order to understand where your interventions can have the biggest potential impact.

Shared Value

With a systems map in place, you’ll next want to focus on creating shared value. While systems mapping asks the question “who are the key players and how do they relate to each other?”, shared value asks “how can we work together to make sure that all core entities are getting value out of this partnership?”

FSG outlines 10 distinct building blocks of shared value that you and your social enterprise partner can invest in from the beginning. These include things like aligning around an explicit vision, developing a robust strategy with a clear focus and ambitious goals, leveraging assets and expertise across functions and business units to ensure effective delivery of shared value, and managing for performance that seeks to measure and learn from results.

FSG 10 building blocks of shared value

The key take-away here is that partnerships with social enterprises will only sustain if they create value for all of the key stakeholders – including the social enterprise itself, its beneficiaries, the surrounding regulatory bodies, other social impact actors in the space, and your company. The diagram below from FSG illustrates the overlap that results in shared value: 

Overlap of shared value from FSG

Once you’ve developed a shared value framework like the one above, the next step is to figure out how to measure it. According to FSG’s measurement method, an integrated shared value strategy and measurement process includes these 4 steps:

  1. Identifying the social issue(s) to target
  2. Making the business case
  3. Tracking progress
  4. Measuring results and using insights to unlock new value
FSG measurement method for shared value

As you move through each of the four steps above, you’ll create a positive feedback loop between strategy and measurement that allows you to remain agile and use new learnings to drive continuous improvement. 

Theory of Change

Realizing shared value inherently involves creating impact. And one of the best ways to confirm that our inputs and activities are actually resulting in that positive impact is the Theory of Change (ToC) logic model. Going through the process of developing a ToC helps ensure that your involvement doesn’t just feel good, but actually creates tangible good results. 

Rank & File Theory of Change Logic Model

As you can see in the diagram above (published by Rank & File), a logic model like the ToC starts with inputs, and then carries through to impact: 

  • Inputs: These are the basic resources that you need to make your day-to-day activities possible, like people, tools, and of course the money.
  • Activities: Next comes the things that you do with those resources – known as activities – which include things like creating, selling, and delivering your offering.
  • Outputs: Those activities then result in outputs, which are typically tangible metrics like number of people reached or number of products sold.
  • Outcomes: The changes that result from those outputs are called outcomes, and include things like the positive results observed for the people you’re serving, or effects on the broader social problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Impact: Finally, those outcomes translate into the ultimate impact you want to have in terms of the problem you’re solving for the people you’re serving. 

The ToC model helps us see exactly how our inputs ladder up to create a desired larger impact. To make that more real, we can look at the example of Change Please, a social enterprise on a mission to tackle homelessness through coffee. Between its storefront café and bulk operations, Change Please provides employment opportunities at living wages for those experiencing homelessness, as well as ancillary support to qualify for housing. By using a jobs model rather than a housing-first model, Change Please creates opportunities for people to sustainably lift themselves out of homelessness – while delivering a high quality product to corporate offices, airlines, catering services, and more. In this example:

  • Inputs would include the Change Please storefronts, people experiencing homelessness who receive training to become employees, and of course, coffee beans.
  • Activities resulting from these inputs include coffee sales through its storefront and bulk operations, as well as the employability and job search readiness training that employees receive at fair market wages.
  • Outputs include things like number of pounds of coffee sold, number of new jobs created for people experiencing homelessness, and number of employees who have been able to secure housing through the Change Please jobs-first model. 
  • Outcomes become people being able to lift themselves out of homelessness, which ladders to the ultimate impact:
  • That ladders to the ultimate Impact that Change Please is having on its broader mission of eradicating homelessness and achieving Sustainable Development Goals, like decent work and economic growth and reduced inequalities. 

Human-Centered Design

When employing any of the frameworks listed in this post, it’s crucial to maintain the people you’re working to serve at the heart of your work. And one of the best ways to do that is by taking a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach. 

HCD tells us that solutions to even the most intractable problems – like poverty, disease and gender inequality – exist in the people and communities who are experiencing them directly. The HCD framework helps us better partner with these very people to help bring solutions to life that make a meaningful difference in their lives and the broader world. 

HCD is similar to (but distinct from) another framework you may have heard of called Design Thinking. Design Thinking is rooted in the need to empathize with the people that we’re working with, define a specific problem or opportunity that we’re going after, ideate the different solutions that could achieve it, then build prototypes that we can test quickly and iteratively. One way to think of HCD is as a process that overlays Design Thinking by dividing it into three distinct stages: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. At MovingWorlds, we call this combination “Social Enterprise Thinking.”

Graphic of design thinking, human-centered design, and social enterprise thinking frameworks

You can learn more about the distinction between HCD and Design Thinking in this blog post, but the bottom line is that when used together, these frameworks force us to slow down enough to ensure that we’re keeping the people and communities we’re trying to serve at the heart of our work. It’s a natural human tendency to want to dive into the ideation and implementation phase of the process, but both HCD and Design Thinking are rooted in the idea that before any brainstorming occurs, you first need to sit down and really empathize, analyze, interview, and learn from the people you’re working to benefit. 

Network Leadership

As we discussed in the introduction of this post, no single actor can solve our most complex global problems on its own. That’s why we need approaches that are rooted in collaboration, like network leadership. Most social enterprises work with and through networks. And to build these networks effectively, you have to establish trust. Network leadership helps us do this through four key principles:

4 pillars of network leadership

Particularly when you’re bringing together actors from different sectors and backgrounds, a foundation of trust is critical to growth. Network leadership helps us build that foundation by:

  1. Focusing on the mission before the organization
  2. Managing through trust, rather than control
  3. Promoting others, not yourself
  4. Building constellations, not stars

These principles also ladder directly to the five steps to building effective impact networks put forth by Stanford Social Innovation Review and summarized in the graphic below:

5 steps to building effective impact networks

The first step is to clarify your purpose – this basically answers the question, “why are we convening together?”. From there, you want to make sure that the right people are at the table – from your organization, from the social enterprise, the right beneficiaries, and other partners if they exist. Then, you want to cultivate trust – which the principles of network leadership above can help you do. From there, you want to coordinate actions to ensure you’re working effectively together, and then collaborate generously and empathetically across all of your different partners and stakeholders. 

Collective Impact

You can think of Collective Impact as a complement to Network Leadership, and it’s a framework that provides tactical guidance on how to work effectively with partners that may have different end goals. There are five conditions that must be met to achieve collective impact:

The five conditions of collective impact

The first is a common agenda. Similar to the network leadership concept of clarifying purpose, this ensures that all participants have a common vision to collectively use their resources to work towards. The second is a shared measurement framework – you want to establish how you’ll measure progress and success at the outset to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples and speaking the same ‘language.’ The third is mutually reinforcing activities, in which each partner can leverage their unique strengths and assets in a complimentary way. The fourth is continuous communication, which is an important part of maintaining trust and staying aligned around a common motivation. Finally, there’s backbone support, which involves bringing in a separate partner or organization to serve as the ‘backbone’ of the entire initiative and coordinate activities amongst the other partners.

Partnership Structures

There are many different ways to develop partnerships. Being mindful about a partnership structure that works for the social enterprise and your organization is critical to ensure all goals are met. This guide from Resonance Global goes into more detail about various partnership models suited to different scenarios. As you embark on any project, defining the partnership structure in place will help you think about how to best use the other frameworks to collaborate:

Resonance cross-sector partnership models

The simplest structure is a joint project, which is a good option for short-term, one-time initiatives or deliverables. For more complex initiatives with multiple projects, work streams, or deliverables, a joint program structure is a good option to coordinate a small set of partners around a single focus area. Multi-stakeholder initiatives are a good choice for aligning partners and resources to drive systemic change according to a common agenda, and involves putting a separate governance structure into place. Finally, you have collective impact, which is a good fit for long-term commitments to a common agenda with many partners and independent work streams.

Choosing the Right Framework

Different stages of your work supporting and partnering with social enterprises will require different frameworks, and you’ll likely end up using a combination of the frameworks listed above. Again, you don’t have to be an expert in every possible framework to be effective, you just need to have a broad understanding of your options so that you can incorporate the right framework at the right time. 

In order to do that, we recommend that at each stage of your work, you:

  1. Get clear about your goals
  2. Analyze available frameworks to find the one best suited for your goals
  3. Develop a cadence for measuring progress and revisiting the framework to ensure it’s still the right choice for your current stage of work.

For example:

  1. When you first partner with a social enterprise, you’ll likely use a combination of Systems Mapping and Human-Centered Design to identify the key stakeholders to involve in co-designing a solution.
  2. Once a solution has been developed and you’re ready to scale it, you can then develop a Theory of Change and Shared Value framework to ensure the right partners are engaged, and that their contributions are creating the intended impact.
  3. To formalize the relationship, you’ll then choose the right partnership structure for your scope of work, and employ Network Leadership principles to build trust between collaborators.
  4. The Collective Impact model can then be employed to ensure all partners are benefitting from the arrangement, and keep measuring results against the Theory of Change you established.
  5. As your initiative grows, you can revisit the Systems Map to potentially bring in more stakeholders to continue to improve, iterate on, and expand your solution.

Just Try It

Because the problems we seek to tackle in social impact are so massive, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to build the “perfect” plan or get stuck in decision paralysis. The power of these frameworks is that they can offer clarity on the best next step, regardless of how big the problem is. Trying to figure out how to make a multi-sector partnership work? Convene people and build trust with network leadership. Working on a new innovation to increase access to healthcare in the hardest to reach places? Map the stakeholders. Wondering how to convene more partners to scale an idea? Develop a theory of change and map it to Shared Value. 

Looking for more customized support to implement these frameworks? Apply to our MovingWorlds Institute, or express your interest in our soon-to-launch “Partner with the Social Enterprise Sector Certificate Course”.