“Am I Making a Difference?”

In fall 2015 the first-ever Jacobs Fellows started their Entrepreneurship Career Program at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Nancy Cao is one of the Jacobs Fellows. She reflects on the differences between depth and breadth of impact and which one is more important to achieve for the different organzisations she has worked with.

Text: Nancy Cao

For those of us working on social impact, the question that keeps us up at night is: am I making a difference? Is my organization making an impact?

For some, impact comes from depth: for example a case worker that completely changes the trajectory of his clients’ lives. For others, impact comes from breadth: the ability to say that your work has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands or even millions.

I believe that both are needed to make strides against the societal challenges of our time. In the context of an organization with finite resources, however, one often has to trade them off against each other, at least in the short term. After years of working with a range of social impact organizations, I’ve come to recognize that this tension, and employees’ scrutiny of this tension, is a sign of their commitment to the cause. Leaders of social impact organizations should encourage their employees to raise their concerns with regard to impact – and then provide clear direction on what’s most important in the near future, and how they will measure it.

At my former consultancy, Mission Measurement, I had the privilege of working with the Chicago Public Library (CPL). One of the biggest library systems in the country, CPL offers an impressive array of services and programs. However, they lacked an effective way to compare the relative impact of these programs beyond reach.

Consider, for example, two programs targeting youth education. One is a citywide summer program that provides educational challenges and programming to over 50,000 kids. The other is an after-school program that brings retired teachers to library branches to provide tutoring to 5,000 kids. How would you compare the two?

To answer this question, the Chicago Public Library first had to define the desired outcomes of both programs. Then, we scored them according to a “cost per outcome” metric that accounted for annual reach, depth of impact, and spending. While you might think that the first program is likely to be less expensive and less impactful for a given child, our scoring adjusted for size of impact so that we could compare true cost effectiveness. Of course, cost effectiveness is not the only metric that matters. However, with this scoring methodology CPL was able to optimize the reach and impact of their portfolio for a given desired outcome.

At Kiva, where I am interning this summer, a similar question arises for our direct loan product in the US. The debate of breadth vs. depth directly affects our methods to achieve growth. We know from experience that borrowers with post-secondary education and middle-class backgrounds take less time and effort to onboard, and therefore allow us to grow quickly. However, we would make less of an impact on financial inclusion in the US, which is what ultimately motivates the team and our network of lenders.

At our most recent monthly meeting where we reviewed key performance metrics, it was clear that the team’s priority was to focus on increasing reach rather than increasing depth. I spoke with the director, and he thoughtfully clarified why that was the case. Two factors favor breadth in this early stage: the first is that Kiva’s loan product is an online platform, and technology inherently favors reach. The second is that Kiva is still building awareness and trust in its product, so more users now means better chances of increasing depth later. Ultimately, of course, he aims to achieve both.

For most organizations, the road to both deep and wide impact will require you to be adaptive. At both the Chicago Public Library and Kiva, I have worked with thoughtful leadership who do not shy away from the challenge of constantly evaluating their impact, and making adjustments with clarity and transparency along the way.