Impact Myths: The Dangers of Rose-Colored Glasses

In our ongoing series on impact, we address five myths and a question about social impact definition. This week, we discuss our third myth:

“Impact is always positive.”

When most donors or non-profits talk about social impact, they mean a positive change in someone’s life or situation: “something good.”  This positive change is what donors and non-profits are seeking to bring about.  Sometimes, however, the impact you seek is not the same as the impact you create. Impact can be unintended, for better or for worse. It can be negative, or a combination of positive and negative change—and even negative change can sometimes be a sign of progress! Confused? Let’s take a look at some examples.

Negative Impact as Evidence of Ineffectiveness

Scared Straight is a once popular program meant to lower levels of youth crime and incarceration by exposing at-risk youth to the reality of prison.  It was implemented in many locations before undergoing a rigorous assessment of its results—and when those evaluations were finally performed, investigators found that the program did not lower criminal behavior. Worse, it actually increased the risk of criminal behavior and incarceration among youth.  Why?  It turned out that exposure to prison made the consequences of criminal action less scary for these youth, rather than more.

Negative Impact as Unintended Consequence of Positive Impact

Negative impact can also be an unintended consequence of an apparently successful intervention.  For example, some evaluations of micro-credit programs in India have found that the more successfully a program raises women’s income levels, the more likely it is for male earners in the household to shift responsibility for the household’s economic security onto women—while also taking control of women’s income. Worse, women also reported increased violence as a result of tensions around their new economic status.

While this is a frustrating result, the good news is that it was discovered at all. That discovery was only possible because the evaluators considered the full range of the program’s potential impact. If they had only looked for evidence of positive impact—the impact they were seeking and that they achieved—they would have missed all of the other ways that this intervention was affecting the lives of the women and girls they were trying to help. The program would have looked like an unqualified success, and its organizers would have missed the opportunity to improve their services and get closer to the true positive change they sought.

Occasionally, Negative Impact as Evidence of Effectiveness

More counter-intuitively, negative impact or change can also sometimes signal that an intervention is working.   In efforts to challenge traditional power structures, one step forward can trigger a backlash that sends you two steps back.

When the suffragettes in the United States were advocating for women’s right to vote, ridicule from the media intensified after the high-profile Seneca Falls Convention. If you were an evaluator at the time, and you were looking at popular opinion to judge their progress, you might have thought that the overall impact of the conference was negative. But, as we now know, that effort was successful overall, and many credit that convention as the birth of the U.S. women’s rights movement. In that case and in some others, negative impact doesn’t simply mean lack of progress or effectiveness– it means that the external context has changed in response.  This dynamic is particularly relevant for women and girls work, which is so often in opposition to established power structures.

Do No Harm:  The Importance of Evaluation

All of these examples point to the same thing: impact itself is value-neutral. It doesn’t just mean the good that you do. It can be the good that you do, the harm that you create, or even both. In seeking positive impact or change, donors would do well to remember the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.”

In that spirit, evaluation is a critical tool to seeing clearly. When you take off the rose-colored glasses, you can begin to understand the whole range of your impact, and that knowledge can help you move closer and closer to the change you do seek.