Impact Week 2022 marked the inauguration of the Impact Champions award, honouring outstanding contributions in building the impact ecosystem. We caught up with the awardees to get their perspectives on the state of impact today and what it takes to be a champion.
When someone at a party asks what you do for work, what do you say?
Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland: I'm working with Rethink Ireland to build a more just, equal and sustainable Ireland. We do that by backing social innovations with cash grants and non-financial supports. We work together with both government and philanthropy to do this.
Katinka Greve Leiner, Director of Ferd Social Entrepreneurs: I'm a social investor in Ferd, finding and developing social entrepreneurs and their ecosystem in Norway.
Anne Holm Rannaleet, Trustee and Executive Director of IKARE Ltd: I still have one leg in the private equity world and I have my other leg in the social investment world. IKARE engages with social entrepreneurs that have innovative solutions with potential to scale, improving access to health for marginalized communities.
Nominations for 2023’s Impact Champions will soon be open. As award winners, what are some of the qualities you’d look for in the nominees?
Anne: It's not only about achieving impact in your own work, but also contributing to the ecosystem. I would nominate people who have the curiosity, who are open and willing to learn and share, and do things a little bit outside of the day-to-day with that hope of creating something bigger. I think having small egos helps.
Deirdre: I agree 100%. I was also going to use the word humility. Humility is a key trait in delivering real long-term impact. I think the other thing is thinking broadly: including people who are not involved in direct impact, for example, researchers, academics or other infrastructure builders, of which there are many different types – a mosaic of roles and contributions.
Katinka: People taking personal interest in the social results. It has to mean something to you personally, to do this work, and maybe that’s the humility part you're both addressing. You're eager to be there and see that change actually happens. Your heart is connected to the social impact, but you also need to have to have your head above the clouds, be a visionary, which is something I like about having discussions with these two ladies.
How do you stay connected to those who benefit from your work?
Deirdre: It's meeting up face to face, standing shoulder to shoulder with the people doing the hard work to deliver the impact. It’s about understanding what their challenges and opportunities are, but also what motivates them, what keeps them going, what matters to them. What books they're reading, what podcasts they're listening to and any advice they have for me.
Anne: The social entrepreneurs IKARE supports are mainly based in Africa, and before COVID I used to see them at least two, three times a year. In the beginning, it’s to see the things actually happening in the field and not just being reported. Later, we try to make sure projects are community-driven, so that once IKARE exits, communities will take ownership.
Katinka: It's important to keep close to it by always being anchored in the social effect we’re discussing. For that, I need to be really close to the storytelling; I need to understand what's happening to the end beneficiaries to tell the story. And to reach the heart of others willing to invest you need the numbers combined with that impact-story.
Looking back on many years in the impact world, what’s changed and what are some of the gaps that still exist?
Anne: You see a shift from traditional investors and traditional corporates, including ESG factors in their decision making and a more inclusive business approach. And you see the traditional philanthropy world becoming a bit more strategic. But 15 years into the game, it’s still so slow.
In Sweden, we still have difficulty engaging the public sector. You have masses of civil society organisations doing things that are absolutely vital for the ecosystem to hold together, but they’re not really getting neither the recognition nor, necessarily, the funding. And we are still working very much in silos.
Lately I’ve come to think that what we, at IKARE and many with us, are actually doing is more akin to infrastructure investment. And infrastructure investment doesn't necessarily give the financial return to the one who provides the necessary funding; it gives a return to the community.
Deirdre: The scale of definable impact, funds and financing has dramatically increased. There's more of what I would call ‘quality money’ available – growth money. In the beginning, I couldn't get money to measure impact. I could get money for more projects that benefit more kids, but nobody wanted to pay for whether or not the kids’ lives are actually changing or not. So that was a motivation: create a model where that kind of money is available. I had the opportunity in leading ONE Foundation and now Rethink Ireland to do that, and boy, does it make a difference!
I've seen that change across Europe, which is fantastic. We've played a big part in increasing the scale and quality of the money, but at the same time, I still find it hard to get funding beyond a year to 18 months. How can I plan, how can I have a strategic theory of change that tackles an ingrained issue, with funding that’s too short-term?
I'm optimistic, because we have been able to do multi-year funding but, unfortunately, it’s rare to see that replicated in the market.
Katinka: The field is larger than it was 15 years ago, and we have a lot more traction when it comes to how to measure impact, how to do theory of change, and all the different instruments we need to make a quality investment. But we still lack the massive inflow of capital and interested politicians on how to change society even more. You have impact investments showing social results, but it's not often replicated across country borders.
Some of these cases can actually be quite good investments, and you need those investors that are economically motivated. But there is a chance that the investments that are not scaling and growing, get overshadowed. We still need players who are not there for immediate economic gain but are willing to commit to a longer term return on investment.
So how do we bridge these gaps?
Anne: Many of our engagement partners work with implementing partners, teaching the teachers so to say, working closely with communities, governments and NGOs: these partnerships allow the organisation to grow and scale, but it's a more of a controlled growth, where they make sure that they do what they're best at. This is understanding the issue at core and developing the systems/solutions that are close to, but more efficient than the current ones, facilitating systemic change.
Katinka: The solutions that so far has been able to grow across borders are targeted towards private sector, and actually have the same look and feel as a private entity, but have a huge social impact as well. We have one case right now (Unicus, where Anne is on the board) that we have managed to get across borders and hopefully will grow even more in the years to come.
Deirdre: I think it's much easier to scale technology solutions across borders than more face-to-face solutions. We’ve backed one organisation, FoodCloud, who scaled within Ireland and, simultaneously, other people's funding brought them across borders. FoodCloud connects community-based organisations that need fresh food with supermarkets or other food suppliers who have food that's almost out of date; technology connects the two of them so that the food can move quickly. FoodCloud is successfully scaling in Poland, across the UK and in a number of other European countries. That’s because their technology is relevant everywhere.
Barriers to scale is something I've reflected on more in the last few years, as I see so many of the organisations that we hoped would scale, fail to scale. When I look at why, it's not because a solution is not scalable. It's because they don't really want to scale it. I have to say, I used to be very critical of that position. And now I kind of feel like, ‘It's your duty to make impact at scale.’ I’m a bit more sympathetic now, as I really start to understand their motivations better. One of the barriers to scale is local legitimacy: if we're talking about face-to-face solutions, let’s say it’s a cafe that employs people with disabilities, there are local people working in them, and it really needs a local person to be managing it and evangelising it.
What’s it going to take to empower the next generation to work for impact?
Katinka: If we listen to the demands of young people right now, it will revolutionise so many areas because they want speed – they want higher speed on the changes this world needs than we do.
Anne: In many cases, it's more difficult because now suddenly everything is impact. If you're coming out of university and looking, it will take you a while to understand exactly, where you really have a chance to contribute to improving people’s lives for the longer term.
Katinka: I have a colleague that recently finished his MBA studies, and they have managed to go through the whole program without learning about valuation of impact or sustainability at any point. That is (expletive) amazing.
Deirdre: In the meantime, as we wait for the big changes, hire them, mentor them, work with them for simple storytelling language and get out of the jargon.
Are you finding a use for the skateboards you won at Impact Week?
Katinka: My skateboard is on the wall, it is beautiful!
Deirdre: Mine’s still on the floor, because we just moved offices, but it will get on the wall in due course.
Anne: When my one-year-old granddaughter gets big enough, and she wants to skate, she may get it from me. Until then, it stays on the wall.
This is a prime example of Anne’s work to identify and address the root causes of social challenges in Africa. Anne also recommended a few essential books for the impact space: The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan and However Long the Night by Aimée Molloy.
Deirdre’s work, building an ecosystem in Ireland for equality and sustainable solutions, is on view Rethink Ireland’s case study on impact measurement and management.
Check out this video about Katinka and Ferd’s work with Unicus (and see the people with autism who are happily employed as a result).