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Social impact models are starting to play a growing role in thinking about the best way to deliver services. Australian governments are increasingly looking to social impact models to achieve change and it's a way of working that social and health services sectors are increasingly having to grapple with. We caught up with Liana Downey - strategy advisor and author of Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More and Change the World - to discuss what social impact models bring to the table, lessons learned from overseas and why the environment in Australia holds so much opportunity for this work. 

Liana Downey is the CEO of Downey & Associates, leading a team that helps leaders increase focus and change lives. She has previously been an Expert Advisor to the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Here's what she had to say:

Your latest book focuses on how not-for-profits can focus their work and achieve the change they are seeking to achieve. Why is a focus on social impact so important for organisations?

Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More and Change the World shows how organisations can identify their sweet spot — at the intersection between what the world needs, what they are good and what works. While most non-profit, governments and even some businesses would say that they care about social impact, the truth is many organizations struggle to pinpoint their impact by trying to be too many things to too many people.

Organisations that change the world share one critical feature. Their leaders make a choice to be something to someone, rather than trying to be everything to everyone. By setting a simple, clear social impact goal, organisations are better able to prioritize the allocation of their precious resources, and start to measure their impact (rather than just their efforts).


The United States has been working in the social impact space for much longer than Australia. What are the lessons Australia can learn from the US and other countries?

First — I’d say yes and no to the idea that the United States is way ahead on this.

Australia is actually right up there with the best in the world in terms of using social impact financing. I had the opportunity to briefly work with New South Wales and the Federal Government on their social impact bonds more than five years ago, at a time when most governments in the USA were still thinking about it. There is a lot more talk than action in the financing end of this space, but in some ways Australia is the exception with some leading edge examples like the financing of Goodstart (the ABC Childcare centre buy-out) and the Murray Darling Basin Balanced Water Fund.

However, if you’re talking about the role of really measuring impact, then I’d agree — for more than ten years the major US Foundations (like Ford, Gates, Rockefeller etc.), have been putting pressure on non-profits (and governments) to demonstrate their impact. Most big funders simply won’t fund work that can’t demonstrable social impact. That means it is no longer enough for organisations to talk about how many clients they serve, or how many programs they run, they actually have to show their impact — e.g. what was the average boost in literacy, how many people got and held employment, were housed or stayed sober. 

That kind of financial pressure has a way of sharpening the mind, and as a result, more and more organisations are tracking their social impact (rather than inputs). But there is still a lot of confusion, particularly amongst the many, many smaller to mid-sized organisations. Does tracking impact mean you have to have a full scale control group study? What’s a logic model? What’s the difference between an outcome and an output measure? People are overwhelmed.

I was recently asked to hold a national training session for the Foundation Center (an umbrella organisation that connects non-profits to information about funding) on performance management, and was bowled over by the number and diversity of organisations who need help. Fortunately, foundations are starting to cotton on, and now there’s starting to be a swing towards helping organisations develop the capacity and skills to measure their impact, which has traditionally been ignored.

I personally am really passionate about helping organisations boost their capacity, because it becomes addictive in a good way. Once leaders can identify the ways in which their programs are or aren’t working, they can do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, it becomes a virtuous cycle. I absolutely love my job when I can help an organisation or leader get on the right track.


Australia has its own unique environment that not-for-profits are operating in. Where do you see there are opportunities for Australia to develop its social impact work that might be different from other countries?

This might sound surprising to those organisations operating in this environment (!) but I think Australia has a relatively greater opportunity for real collaboration amongst the corporate, government and non-profit sectors. While mistrust exists amongst different entities, Australia just has a better track record in this area, the scale also somewhat reduces complexity. We think 7 states are a lot, but try coordinating a federal initiative across 50 states! Australians are also highly innovative by nature, and as a result more willing to experiment with new funding and measurement approaches. That’s critical. You can’t learn unless you give it a go.


What are your top tips for organisations wanting to start focussing on their social impact but are finding it difficult or time consuming?

As I discuss in Mission Control, to have an impact, the best way to focus your efforts and resources is to make three key decisions.

First—Which clients do we serve? (Get specific— think about geographic, age, and gender focus).

Next, what outcome are we hoping to achieve for these clients? I always recommend that you start (where possible) by asking clients explicitly what they want. Focus your efforts and energy on their biggest need.

These two things combined help you articulate your goal. Your goal should define a clear, measurable end-state (e.g. for one of my American clients, it could be, “to house 100,000 chronically homeless people”).

Finally, you need to think about what approach you are going to employ to reach your goal? There are lots of different ways to get to the same goal. So if the goal is housing, you can think about building new houses, providing training and education programs, or as my client did, by building a collaborative approach and working with existing organisations to remove obstacles for people to connect with existing housing stock. What matters is that the approach you choose works (there should be some evidence base behind it), that it fits with your unique organisational skills and capacity, and that isn’t duplicative with some existing programs. It should meet a gap.

Getting clear on who you’re serving, what you’ll deliver for them, and how, are critical steps in achieving impact. This also enables you to construct a compelling narrative to engage supporters and funders alike.