Defining social impact

Every day, people demonstrate their commitment to making a difference. They invest money, passion and hard work in helping the disadvantaged improve their lives, in protecting the natural environment or in supporting their neighborhood’s cultural life. In short, these people aim to advance society and, thus, to achieve the greatest possible social impact every day.

Illustration Möwe links
Illustration Möwe rechts

But what exactly do we mean, when we talk about social impact?

In the context of work for social betterment, one refers to social impact when a measure produces results in the form of changes…

  • within the target group,
  • in that group’s living environment, and/or
  • in society at large.
Illustration Möwen

There are numerous levels at which social impact can be achieved. These levels of effect are illustrated using the results staircase:


Results at the societal level will here be referred to as “impact” (as shorthand for social impact). In the illustration, this is represented at level 7, at the top.

Results within the target group are outcomes. Outcomes can be further subdivided, as seen at levels 4 - 6 in the illustration.

  • The third outcome level is reached when the target group's circumstances change, and members are able to improve their living conditions (level 6).
  • The second outcome level is reached when we observe changes in behavior within the target group (level 5)
  • The first outcome level is reached when we observe changes in attitudes and/or skill levels within the target group (level 4).

Impact and outcomes result from the products produced or services provided by a project.

These products or services are referred to as outputs.

Typical examples of outputs include classes held, football practices offered, choir rehearsals conducted, learning materials or films provided. You may interpret this website as an output indicator. In short, outputs can include services, activities or products.

In the results staircase, outputs are represented in levels 1 - 3.

  • YEA: Example of outputs, outcomes and impact

    At YEA, a project is designed to help young people find an apprenticeship in a vocational-training program.

    The project’s outputs (products and services) include tutoring and job-application training sessions.

    However, the mere implementation of tutoring sessions, or even a high number of participants, does not say anything about the effect on the target groups, that is the social impact achieved. This is because participating in these sessions does not automatically imply that the youth will be able to find jobs afterwards. Yet the outputs are, of course, a prerequisite for achieving this goal.

    If, as a result of the training, the young people acquire useful job-hunting knowledge and skills, gain self-confidence, and can follow through on their applications independently, these are results on the higher level (outcomes).

    If the project does succeed in helping young people take on positions in vocational training, which in turn contributes to an overall decline in unemployment in the region, then a change at the societal level has been made (this is what we call impact).

In summary: A project offers certain services, products and activities. These are outputs.

As a consequence of these outputs, results are produced within the target groups. These are outcomes. These outcomes can be of various kinds.

The outcomes in turn can have results at the level of society as a whole. This would be an impact.

Outcomes always refer to results within the project target group. Impact describes the desired changes at the societal level (social, economic, etc.). Impact always relates to a part of the society as a whole, for instance the population in the district of a city or within a specific region.

More detail on these issues is provided under "Creating a logic model".

Before moving on, please consider the following:

While the terms "impact," "impact orientation" and "impact assessment" have become increasingly popular in recent years – a trend we admit to having contributed to – they involve two basic things:

  • Working for impact is a mindset. I engage because I want to support the target group as best I can.

  • Working for impact is a form of project management that is adapted to third-sector work. Impact orientation is not more (but also not less!) than that.

So let’s get into the details. We begin by drawing on your intuition in exploring: For whom and what do you (want to) engage?