Summary: Social impact organizations are at risk of making the biggest impact mistake that can cost millions of dollars- serving the wrong population or serving the wrong need for the right population. 

Creating Social Impact and Social Change

Creating social impact and social change can be tricky because it seems difficult to move the needle on large social issues. It’s even harder to get measurable change that demonstrates effectiveness. 

Your organization might be struggling to explain why you exist, why people should care about your social cause, and why you deserve their support. Those parts of social impact work are difficult enough. 

So why layer a silly problem like the one we’re going to discuss today on top of all of that mess you’re already working on sorting out? 

What’s the Biggest Mistake a Social Impact Organization Can Make?

Excellent question! It’s kinda like asking ‘what else can go wrong?” 

There are already loads of things that can stop a founder from creating a sustainable organization. 

When your goal is to do good work and help create a better (world/society/life, etc)… you want to make sure you’re being as efficient and effective as possible. 

That means, the biggest mistake you can make is one that will limit both your efficiency and effectiveness. 

Sometimes there can be a mismatch between the population that you want to help and what they actually need. Sometimes you are helping people, but they’re not the people you intended to help. 

You can think of this as type 1 and type 2 errors in research if you can remember way back to those days in college and grad school. 

Since I know you’re super nerdy like me, you’ll appreciate this explanation once we get a bit deeper into it. 

Population of Focus: “Who” You Serve

I put the “who” in quotes because who can be an animal, a community, a person, a family unit, a school, a municipality.  The “who” is a placeholder for the social cause you intend to change or make an impact on. 

When you know who you serve, you can better adjust and scale your services to meet their needs appropriately. Your population of focus should be clearly defined in your mission, vision, or in other organizational materials. 

For a social business, who you serve might include the clients you generate revenue from as well as the people you serve through your social impact mission. These may be the same or mutually exclusive groups. 

The last thing I’ll say about defining your population of focus is this… every funder will ask you for this information if you are seeking funding. This is an essential part of social entrepreneurship that you must clarify when you are asking for money to serve this population. 

You can learn more about defining your population of focus in this blog post.

Conducting a Needs Assessment: Determining What Your Population of Focus Needs

The only way to know if you are meeting the right needs that your population of focus has or if you are meeting the need you intend to meet is for you to first know what the needs are and then measure your work. 

Funders will usually ask you about the needs of the population you serve and expect you to quantify them. You might use data in your application or have to complete a needs assessment in the early funding stages. 

This is a common practice because it requires you to stop and take stock of what you’re trying to do and what actually needs to be done. A well-done needs assessment can save you time, money, and effort that you might otherwise waste. 

Taking the time to understand the unique needs of those you serve and the context in which you work will help you be successful and sustainable. Learn more about how to conduct a needs assessment here.

The Biggest Error You Could Be Making Right Now

Let’s assume you’ve been getting amazing results. You’re absolutely crushing it and your clients are seeing huge success. You’re solving the social problem you work and you’re thrilled. 

But then you discover that you’ve been really successfully helping people that are not the people you intended to help. Your assumption was that what you were doing was successfully helping the population you intended to help. 

However, you were instead solving some other group’s problems… very successfully though. 

Why is this a problem if someone is still getting helped? 

It means you could have a few different issues causing this. You might not be clear on who your population of focus actually is. You might also not have the right marketing materials to bring the right people to you. Or you could be enrolling people in the entirely wrong way no allowing the wrong people into your programs or services inadvertently. 

There are loads of ways that you can start serving the wrong people and see huge success. 

This is an example of a Type 1 error- You believe the results you are seeing in the population you serve are a result of the services you provide. However, that assumption is wrong because you are not serving the right people. 

In this example, you’re serving the wrong population and you need to figure out how to correct that based on how you implemented your strategies.

The #2 Thing Preventing You From Making An Impact

The next biggest error your organization could be making is serving the wrong need for the right population. 

Let’s assume that you’re not seeing the results you want and you think your program is doing horribly. You have good enrollment, and a good number of completions, but the transformation just isn’t there. 

You might think that you don’t have the right people in your programs and you start looking for ways to recruit the right people. This could be a Type 2 error- You falsely assume that you’re not meeting your impact goals because you have the wrong people. 

In reality, you have the right people, but you could be meeting the wrong need to cause the transformation you expect. You might not be meeting their needs appropriately or have no idea what their needs actually are. 

This happens a lot when social impact organizations fail to involve their clients and communities in the planning and oversight of their work. If you do not know the needs of the people you serve or you create solutions that do not meet their needs, you will not see the impact you desire. 

In this case, you can try to audit your efforts to see what needs you are meeting and how you can get closer to addressing the ones that lead to the transformation you seek. 


That’s all for this post, a super short and simple way for you to avoid making the biggest mistake that organizations can make when they’re trying to create efficient and effective social change. 

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