How to Pick Impact Causes Effectively – Learnings From CBS’ “The Activist” Fiasco

The failure to inject efforts into the right initiatives will exhaust our resources on impact innovations that are not as worthwhile or time-critical right now. That’s why we need to be precise about the initiatives we choose to support.

Formerly bound to premiere on 22 October 2021, ‘The Activist’ – a CBS reality TV show that had 6 activists competing with each other for funding, attracted a significant amount of backlash for using competition in its decision-making process. Usher, Priyanka Chopra, and Julianne Hough: the three judges chosen for the show were heavily criticized online for spearheading a production that many perceived as “commoditized activism”. Originally conceptualized as a five-week journey that would chronicle six activists facing off in social media-driven challenges, the show’s producers soon dropped the competitive angle and announced that it will be converted into a documentary instead.

What’s worth noting is that the use of competition in ‘The Activist’, if governed by scientifically-backed methodologies, could have helped unearth and finance the most critical socio-environmental issues. As the concept of Effective Altruism would profess, doing maximum good requires that you compare and contrast competing issues to find and fund initiatives with the most impact potential. Competition is not bad, but the way it was used by The Activist was problematic. The show’s poor execution is a missed opportunity as it has robbed the world of a unique chance to learn and act on the most pressing problems of our times.

In this article, I will shed light on the importance of objectively evaluating causes that need global attention and finance, a worthwhile pursuit for any individual or organization looking to invest their time and capital into doing good. I will proceed to reveal how Impact Alpha can help policymakers, business leaders, and individual citizens prioritize actions & initiatives in order to maximize their social impact.

Prioritizing Impact Actions: Why Is It Needed?

Climate Action Now

The Activist’s use of social media popularity as a key metric to decide which cause would get funding is contentious because of the popular perception that pitting impact initiatives against each other undermines the work that activists do in real life. You too might have similar reservations because of the questionable morality of ‘competitive’ philanthropy. However, competition is not all negative – it can help us find and pursue the most deserving impact actions. If anything, the need to prioritize social causes is paramount in today’s day and age. Here’s why.

First, there is a scarcity of financial resources earmarked for doing good, which means that funders and practitioners need to be extremely objective about where we invest our time, money, and energy. The failure to inject efforts into the right initiatives will exhaust our resources on impact innovations that are not as worthwhile or time-critical right now. That’s why we need to be precise about the initiatives we choose to support.

Second, our world’s problems are urgent and need remedial action now. From CO2 levels that are higher than they have ever been in the last 2 million years and the overwhelming leakage of 40% of global plastic waste into the environment to widening economic inequality with the richest 1% owning twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people, we are facing countless social and environmental concerns that will become existential if we don’t tackle them now. Point is, if we are not objective about which impact area we address immediately, we won’t be able to solve our world’s gravest problems in time. It will be too late to fix anything – that’s why we need to prioritize solutions today.

Third, the fact that many business leaders and policymakers choose impact areas based on emotional biases or financial motivations, not logic or scientific approach, is problematic. Corporations are more likely to give when the stock market is up, thus indicating that in the past, monetary gains have inspired acts of philanthropy – not the efficacy of the cause itself. Why is it the case that every other industry or profession heavily relies on carefully developed success metrics in decision making but the impact creation space does not? It’s high time that we introduce objective frameworks to help decision-makers better prioritize their efforts across every social and environmental domain today.

Impact Alpha: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Impact Alpha

In the finance world, creating positive Alpha refers to when an investment beats the market and achieves returns above and beyond the expected. This tried-and-tested methodology is equally important in the impact space where your efforts and investments need to surpass whatever is already happening in the status quo – at rePurpose Global, we refer to this as Impact Alpha. It is about organizations aiming to maximize the change created on every dollar spent by evaluating & handpicking the most impactful actions.

Constructively prioritizing one impact area over the other demands that we acknowledge the importance of healthy competition in the selection process. Since resources are scarce, competition is indispensable and it is only by recognizing it can we actually establish rules for making the competition fairer. Applying Impact Alpha as a key benchmark criterion can help you better prioritize the most viable impact action worthy of our attention. Whether you are a business executive, a policymaker or a conscious consumer who wants to do good for our world, using Impact Alpha can help. Here’s how.

For Business Leaders: For brand executives who are making strategic investments in sustainability, purpose, and corporate philanthropy, applying the principles of impact alpha as a screening tool can go a long way. Instead of using profit as the only north star to your impact creation and dividing resources over dozens of initiatives, audit your current initiatives by their true efficacy and reprioritize them to maximize impact. Recognizing the importance of plastic pollution as a key area for Impact Alpha, Grove’s business leaders took an executive decision to commit to both short-term and long-term objectives towards mitigating plastic waste. By going Plastic Neutral and creating a one-of-its-kind industry working group, the company has taken tangible steps towards its eventual goal of becoming plastic-free by 2025.

For Policymakers: Using Impact Alpha as a governing principle, policymakers can do the right thing at the right time and unlock abundant good for society. The need of the day is for governments to better understand impact alpha and use it as inspiration in their everyday policymaking as it can help them champion interventions that create the most meaningful change. You can draw inspiration from WRI’s Global Forest Watch – a platform where policymakers and local law enforcement agencies around the world contribute and share data on forest coverage to predict threats to biodiversity and local ecosystems. The platform spurs timely and effective government action by prioritizing and solving the most threatening challenges within global forest conservation.

For Conscious Citizens: As an individual consumer, your time, effort, and money should go to the most worthwhile solutions within the specific impact domains you wish to support. For example, let’s say one of the causes you are most passionate about is global health, and you wanted to find out the best ways to make the most impact with a $100 philanthropy budget for the year. Look no further than GiveWell – a non-profit assessment organization that ranks international health charities based on their efficacy. Embodying the spirit of Impact Alpha, the organization uses the Disability-Adjusted Life-Year Metric alongside others, to assess how many life years a certain health intervention will provide additionally on a per-dollar basis. Relying on this assessment, you can choose a charity that does good the most.

INSIST: A 6-Step Roadmap to Deploy Impact Alpha

INSIST Framework

As is evident in the case of ‘The Activist’, the desire to do good did not auto-translate to doing good. What the show needed was to do good better, and that’s exactly what Impact Alpha is all about. At rePurpose Global, we have combined years of social impact expertise to create the INSIST FrameworkTM – a universally applicable guide to help corporate funders, philanthropists and policymakers achieve Impact Alpha within any given impact area.

Here’s what our INSIST FrameworkTM stands for:

  1. Insist on Solvability
  2. Necessitate Efficacy
  3. Seek Longevity
  4. Invest in Scalability
  5. Strive for Speed
  6. Transcend through the Multiplier Effect

This pioneering framework can be used to evaluate possible impact actions for all areas of impact. To effectively illustrate how you can employ INSIST in your unique context, let’s go through a concrete case study. Say that you are a sustainability manager at a conscious beauty brand and you are curious about how your company can take effective action against global plastic pollution. Here’s how I would apply the INSIST FrameworkTM to your scenario:

Step 1: Insist on solvability. Prioritize solvable innovations within a particular impact area as it will help you streamline your efforts and maximize impact. For example, 95% of ocean plastic waste is not at the ocean surface and is essentially impossible to extract, making it extremely challenging to completely solve the problem of marine plastic litter. Considering the solvability aspect, you may want to invest in solutions that work towards recovering and recycling ocean-bound plastic waste that is still on land so they don’t end up as marine plastic litter in the first place.

Step 2: Necessitate efficacy. Think in terms of how much impact you would enable for every dollar spent on an initiative. Adopting this quantitative approach will empower you to identify a cause where your investments and intervention will create maximum impact. For example, recovering ocean-bound plastic is more cost-effective and impactful than recovering marine litter. It costs approximately $5 or more to remove 1 kg of plastic litter from the ocean, while recovering the same amount of ocean-bound plastic costs as little as $0.50 cents through platforms like rePurpose Global. Between the two interventions, it makes better fiscal and impact sense to go for the latter intervention.

Step 3: Seek longevity in solutions. Choose long-term and evergreen solutions over one-time initiatives that don’t offer permanent relief. For example, between infrastructure investment and annual beach clean-ups, the former helps you achieve Impact Alpha while the latter does not. The effects of investing in waste management infrastructure near coastlines for plastic collection and recovery are long-term and replicable, while beach clean-ups are one-time initiatives with temporary effects.

Step 4: Invest in solutions that are scalable. With scalability comes the potential to implement solutions that can be improved and adapted to changing contexts in the future. You need context-appropriate innovations that can be transplanted and scaled within your specific scenario. For example, computer vision-enabled segregation of waste where an AI camera helps evaluate the material type and filter it accordingly is one of the latest innovations in plastic recycling. While a cutting-edge solution like this could be extremely effective in the developed world, it might not be as context-appropriate in the developing world at this very moment where a more cost-effective and human-centered approach would be to engage with skilled, informal workers who can not only replace expensive hardware installations but also simultaneously earn additional, stable income as a result.

Step 5: Strive for speed, i.e. prioritize innovations according to their “time value of impact” and take action that you can execute straight away. Focus on interventions that you can undertake right now to create imminent change alongside interventions that can’t be immediately implemented. For example, offsetting your plastic footprint and reducing the use of plastic in your supply chain should go hand in hand. Don’t compromise one for the other or prolong immediately actionable solutions to focus exclusively on solutions for which impact potential may lie in the distant future.

Step 6: Transcend your efforts by choosing solutions that activate a multiplier effect. This means prioritizing actions that can branch out and create an impact in more areas than one. Take the example of enabling the transition of informal waste workers into formal, dignified employment. In doing so various co-benefits can be created. Formalization means that waste workers can get timely salaries, protective equipment, and official ID cards to help prevent harassment, amongst other benefits that improve their social and financial security. Formal work also means that workers receive upskilling & job training, which ultimately improves the environmental efficiency of plastic waste recycling. Such interventions are good for people and the planet, thus satisfying the multiplier criteria for Impact Alpha.

Final Thoughts

‘The Activist’ had every potential to become an educational experience that sparks interesting conversations about impact. However, its lack of scientific understanding of philanthropy grossly backfired on the show, thus negating its potential to create meaningful change. While the show’s competitive aspect was counterproductive, we need to acknowledge that competition is not inherently unhealthy in the impact space. Activists are constantly competing for resources, and due to its limited availability, it’s even more crucial for decision-makers, businesses, and consumers to focus their effort on supporting interventions that are most worthy of our collective philanthropy.

Effectively ranking, choosing, and financing the right impact actions can maximize impact – it is the first place to start. By using Impact Alpha as a key metric for ranking impact actions, we can develop a universally acceptable system where the merit and efficacy of an impact action will dictate where our priority and resource allocation will be channeled. Moreover, finding and financing the most impactful causes can give brands and business leaders a unique opportunity at thought leadership. Not only will it help you do good, but it will also help you distinguish and establish yourself as an industry leader whose actions are valued across the ecosystem – now isn’t that worth pursuing as well?

As a parting thought, I encourage you to truly educate yourself about the social and environmental issue areas that interest you the most. Do your research, consult with experts, and ensure that you don’t let your emotional biases come in the way of picking impact actions. Apply the INSIST FrameworkTM to strategically evaluate solutions you can explore within the realm of impact creation.

For brands and organizations who want to achieve Impact Alpha in their environmental philanthropy, go to our Sustainability Advisory Page to explore how we can help guide your impact creation journey towards the greater good. Feel free to get in touch with our purpose experts and learn how you can take effective action today!

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