10 social impact lessons I learnt as a not-for-profit leader

By Kristy Muir

Tuesday November 20, 2018

CEO Kristy Muir reflects on the key lessons she’s learnt as the Centre for Social Impact marks its 10th birthday.

It is natural to reflect on the moments of success at a major milestone, but sometimes we learn the most from the hard times and the lessons we take from them. So, for our 10th birthday, here are my top ten personal lessons and reflections on social impact and the social purpose ecosystem.

1. Leading social purpose organisations is hard, slow work that takes exceptional leadership, passion, patience and humility

Kristy Muir

Leadership is critical. We all know this inherently and the literature has well demonstrated its importance. As a social purpose sector, if we are serious about social change, we have to be serious about building the capacity of for-purpose leaders. The sector has exceptional talent, but we all know the value of supporting the current and next generation of leaders.

At CSI, we are endeavouring to play our role in helping to educate our current and future social impact leaders, including undergraduate and postgraduate students, industry leaders and board directors.

At a personal level, across the for-purpose ecosystem, I’ve worked with and witnessed many incredible leaders who work with enormous passion, skill and commitment and who I admire enormously. I’ve learned the importance of never underestimating the power of relationships and the criticality of taking the time to build trust. And, in partnering with others and witnessing strong collaborations, I’ve learned that the united are a powerful force. However, I’ve also seen how long it takes to rebuild trust once it is damaged and that ignoring the unconverted will inevitably hold us back.

I’ve learned that purpose can anchor us and propel us forward, while ego at an individual or organisational level can destabilise us and sometimes take us under. I’ve learned that leadership needs to be guided not only by a moral compass, but also by moral courage. Moral courage to call out what might be good for our social purpose, but may not be good for our organisations. Moral courage to say no, to stop, to call out, to adapt.

Finally, I’ve learned that leadership is hard work and emotionally taxing. At times it’s the favourite part of my work – being challenged to think, work and do differently, challenging, encouraging, enabling change, building capacity, working alongside incredible people, leading collaboratively with others, solving problems, working out how to navigate other people’s and organisations’ priorities and values (I could go on).

But, at other times, leadership feels exhausting, like I’m fighting a war on multiple fronts and working out which balls are ok to drop and which ones I need to keep juggling and accepting that I’m never going to meet everyone’s agendas, needs and wants. As such, I’ve learned the immense value of coaching (as a support, to help see my blind spots, to accept what is and what I can and can’t control and to manage the turbulence of the job), peer support and constantly refuelling my resilience bucket. And, I should add, I’ve learned the value of fiercely protecting the time for each of these personally and professionally.

2. Money matters

Money has to be one of the banes of a not-for-profit (NFP) leader. Where the next dollar is coming from is a pragmatic challenge for a sector where around two in three NFPs are earning less than $250,000 per year. But, even for the larger NFPs, many are operating on tight margins, struggling with liquidity and facing the tough restrictions of grant contracts. Getting the finances in shape is critical for credibility, trust and, of course, sustainability. I know from personal experience that moving from red to black is painful, but getting the finances in order is one of the most important pieces of work we can do as leaders.

We all know that money can be seductive. Holding the intersection between funding and impact is critically important, including asking:

– How does our funding relate to our mission?

– Are we taking funding to meet our mission, or will taking this grant be mission stretch, mission creep or mission drain?

As not-for-profits, if we are cash rich, but impact poor, we need to spend more to achieve our impact. If we are cash poor and impact poor, we should probably pack up our bats and balls and go home.

I got to learn this the hard way when I became CSI’s CEO. We had to let go of a program of work around conferences and events that was intended to operate under social enterprise principles: to both fit with CSI’s social mission and generate income to be reinvested in our broader social purpose work. The reality was that overall, this program of work did not help CSI meet its broader purpose, and there were great financial and opportunity costs. Mission drift can be very distracting and expensive.

Like many not-for-profits, at CSI we still have much to do to increase social impact through growing purposeful activities and our reach. Balancing financial sustainability and scaling for impact is a constant challenge. I’m pretty proud to have led an organisation that managed to turn around a significant annual financial deficit to generating a small surplus while also achieving our strategic goals.

While efficiency and money mindedness are important, holding tight to monetary values can lead us into trouble with what we truly value as a society as people, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and members of our community. That’s because values matter.

3. Values matter

The value of people matters enormously. Truly valuing the worth of people and treating people with dignity, respect and self-worth is one of the bastions of the social purpose sector. We must hold on tight to this humanity. As part of this, we must take care to avoid putting economic values on everything, including people’s lives, because we risk trading our personal values and overlooking the real (non-financial) value people have to offer.

At CSI we often think about systems, but we must never lose sight of humanity. It is people, families and communities who remain at the heart of these systems. I remember when I first came to CSI five years ago and the then CEO showed me a picture of the ‘social impact system’. My first question was, “Where are the people that this system is for?”. For almost 10-years (from 13 to my early 20s) I worked directly in the disability sector, and as a researcher, I’ve sat in parks, around kitchen tables and at ministerial round tables for more than two decades, listening closely to and really feeling what the social sector means for people’s lives. I don’t ever want to lose sight of why we are here.

This is one of the reasons we’ve developed courses to teach applied systems thinking that puts people at the centre. It’s at the heart of the Governance for Social Impact course for NFP Directors. How do we understand and work within the ecosystem to garner the changes we want to see? How do we continue to put beneficiaries at the centre? When do we collaborate and when do we go alone? How do we know which drivers to attack and which levers might have the most influence? And, to my next lesson: how do we know if we are making a difference?

4. Purpose and passion aren’t enough. We need to know whether we are making a difference

Simon Sinek, among others, rightly got many people focused squarely on the ‘why’. Purpose has become an important mantra and one that I agree wholeheartedly with. Purpose underpins our missions. But I have learned that purpose and passion are not enough.

More than ever, with increased marketisation of the social service sector and declining institutional trust, it is important to enact our purpose and demonstrate that we are living it.

We need to ask:

  • How do we get funding for prevention and early intervention rather than continuing to service social problems?
  • If our purpose is to build stronger communities, how do we empower our leaders to be willing to call out things that disempower individuals and communities?
  • How do we lift our gaze to support the purposes for which we exist, while balancing the pragmatics of running a business?
  • How do we know and demonstrate that we are making a difference?

We work hard across CSI to assist others to better understand and measure social impact through our workshops, professional development, postgraduate courses, through tools, guides and resources and through direct bespoke work. However, I’ve learned that until we work out a way to significantly build capability at scale and provide a tool that can assist to measure, benchmark and provide real-time feedback to organisations, and that can be used by funders to help inform decision-making and their own impact, we’re only enabling small numbers of people and organisations.

This is why we spent a year developing Amplify Social Impact. It’s our biggest piece of capacity building infrastructure yet. while we have taught hundreds of people about outcomes measurement; created tools to assist people to measure their impact. While I will always be a staunch supporter for evidence, sometimes the evidence isn’t enough.

5. Evidence and rigour are critical but not always enough

As an academic, I have spent a career gathering and analysing evidence and making arguments. “What’s going on? Why? What works for who and when? How do we know if we’re making a difference? What are we missing?” are questions that always sit with me. I will always be a very strong advocate for evidence informed decision making.

However, I have learned that so often the evidence is not enough. I have sat in many rooms where I’ve tried to work out why issues get so stuck and why more evidence doesn’t work. The primary answer is often this: We need to change hearts as well as minds. We need to build and activate empathy for the other and work to understand, unpack and appropriately use and redistribute privilege and power.

6. Privilege and power prevail

We have moved a long way over the last decade in regard to diversity, tolerance and valuing individuals from different backgrounds, but there is a long way to go.

This is in part about overcoming stigma and changing attitudes. Stigma continues to prevail in many spaces, irrespective of the fact we have seen great advances with major shifts, like marriage equality. We do not have to lift many rocks to find stigmatised attitudes, for example, about the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, homelessness, mental health, gender, our traditional owners and refugees and asylum seekers. Shifting hearts and minds must remain at the forefront of our work.

This goes beyond attitudes and speaks to the heart of power and privilege. As I wrote recently in an article called “Power, privilege, and public good“, it is about “Who has it, who doesn’t; who knows it, who is blind to it, and the consequences of how it is consciously and unconsciously exercised and redistributed”.

7. The language we use matters

As part of this, the language we use matters enormously. We need to be thinking about and using language that represents the “we” and not the “I”. We need to shift the political debate from “What does this mean for me?” to “What does this mean for society?”. To refocus politics around purpose and away from the “I” and beyond short-termism.

Richard Dennis, in his Quarterly Essay, recently reminded us that ‘words like “efficiency”, “productivity” and “growth”’ have left us debating “what is cheapest to provide, rather than what is best for the community.” He goes further to argue that Words like efficiency have been used to usurp democratic debate about our national values and replace it with a debate about the value of individuals.” Just a glance at history can tell you that losing sight of the value of people is dangerous territory.

Sometimes language becomes habitual in the public discourse. It is not a dramatic shift technically to replace “I” with “we”, but it is a fundamental cultural change. If we shift to the “we”, we also need to work out how “we” work better together to create a more inclusive society. For this to be possible, collaboration is critical.

8. Collaboration is critical, but not always needed. We must understand our roles within the social purpose ecosystem

If we are trying to solve complex problems then it is a given that we will need many different agents and different levers in the ecosystem to generate change. I have learned that as social purpose organisations we must be savvy at understanding the context within which we work, our role within the ecosystem, and when and how we should be working with others.

Collaboration between the right partners across the ecosystem can be critical. Understanding who we should be working with, under what circumstances and establishing the right conditions for effective collaboration is a necessity for solving complex problems. But, I have also learned that collaboration is not needed all of the time. Solving simple problems may be most effectively and efficiently undertaken by individuals or single organisations. Complicated problems are likely to require coordinated resourcing (time, people, skill sets and trial and error).

I have witnessed some exceptional collaborations, but also significant time and resources wasted when it was not needed and/or the conditions were not established, monitored or amended. I have learned, as one of my team members explained, “that we need to be team focused, but not team restricted”. I have also learned (through research and practice) that if collaboration is going to be effective, the work of collaboration needs to be funded and measured*.

9. We need to fund the unfundable

Getting the right funding for the right solutions is critical to solving complex social problems. At a time when resources are tight, we have increasing marketisation of human services and new funding models, like social impact investing, we need to be ever aware of ensuring that the right resources are tapped into and that we fund for additionality (rather than just moving the same pot of money around).

We need to acknowledge that sometimes we need funding for things that we socially and morally value that will cost more to implement than might be offset or saved in the future.

Funding causes that give directly to people who are in need is absolutely required. Everyone deserves to have their basic rights met and to have dignity. However, we also need to find ways to fund pathways to longer term impact. In the finance world, this would be patient capital, but with political and other grant cycles, long term funding for slow moving social change is significantly limited. We must think seriously about whether we are committed to addressing complex social issues and whether and how we untap new sources of capital and put the right funding to the right levers for change.

As part of this, I’ve also learned that we must fund what is often unfundable. That is, those pieces of the puzzle that are key for positive social change but sit at the foundations or intersections of social change: collaborations, infrastructure, capacity building, system navigators and change agents.

10. The future will always be coming, so be alert to what is or might be on the horizon, but remember we always have history to learn from

My first scholarly love was social military history and I feel enormously lucky to have had the privilege to study history at University. It was history that taught me to really listen to people’s stories. History taught me to think critically and to understand ecosystems and the complexity of problems, how society is shaped and the intersections between the private and the public spheres – between individuals, governments, businesses, communities and the social sector.

The historian in me will always remember that while the future will always be coming and worth being aware of and prepared for, we have a past to remember, learn from and help inform where we are going next. History taught me to be fearful of great risks, but also hopeful of wonderful futures that we can help shape as social change leaders.

As an organisation that aims to help enable others to deliver social impact, within a society that continues to face complex social problems, we still have much work to do in partnership with others. We will continue to build the capacity of our current and future social impact leaders and undertake leading research and activity that helps catalyse positive social impact.

* See the Collaboration Health Assessment Tool

This is a slighted edited version of Kirsty Muir’s CEO update.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals