We don’t usually think of achievements in terms of what would have happened otherwise, but we should. What matters is not who does good but whether good is done.” ― William MacAskill, Doing Good Better
We all love an uplifting story of a simple innovation that solves a tricky social problem.
Anyone who’s been to a poor country will probably have seen women pumping water for their families in searing heat from a communal well.
That was the problem the PlayPump set out to fix. By getting children to play on a merry-go-round to pump water it hoped to transform back breaking manual labour into a leisure activity.
The more a child spins the more life saving water gets pumped – with playground equipment something they had never seen before in their lives. Kids are happy, Mum’s happy.
Ingenious , right?
Despite numerous innovation awards, millions of dollars spent and endorsements from the likes of Bill Clinton and Jay Z , no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump.
- In order to pump water, PlayPumps needed constant force, and the kids playing on them would quickly get exhausted or even injured.
- The women whose lives were supposed to be made easier ended up pushing the merry-go-round themselves, which they found more tiring and time consuming than using a hand-pump.
- And unlike the hand-pump, which locals could repair themselves using their own skills , the PlayPump required expensive outside assistance.
Critically – the Merry-Go-Round required continuous use for 27 hours to generate the same amount of water as the hand-pump did in a day.
PlayPumps are a critical lesson in learning from failure.
The book by William MacAskill has a stark warning for the social sector:
When it comes to helping others being unreflective often means being ineffective.
Today we need less talk of innovation and more evidence of impact. All of us need to demonstrate how we solve problems for people, how we realise savings, and how we make the world a better place.
That means answering difficult questions.
MacAskill adds another question that is a recurring motif throughout his book:
What would have happened anyway?
It’s a question we hardly ever consider.
Suppose we did nothing.
Is it possible that similar social outcomes could be achieved without us getting involved? In the case of the PlayPump it seems so.
The social sector – in the UK alone – is worth billions so it’s only right that we get better at scrutinising the effectiveness of all the players.
If your role is to deliver social outcomes then you have a responsibility to articulate how those outcomes have been achieved. And those outcomes should demonstrate what you uniquely brought to the party – rather than what would have happened anyway.
To use a couple of examples using this thinking let’s look at the world of housing associations, the main providers of affordable housing in the UK.
- Housing Associations will often claim social impact as they build a certain number of new homes every year. For example let’s say they claim to have built 200 annually. However had they done nothing it’s almost certain that those homes would have been built anyway – by one of the other 900+ housing non-profits that exist. The same overall number of homes would be supplied. To the people moving in it’s largely irrelevant which housing association manage them. Arguably the average landlord confers no more social benefits or quality of life to the tenant compared to anyone else.
- Another common claim is the number of people an organisation has helped into employment. Again – what would happen if, say, you didn’t give any help to 100 unemployed people? The jobs would almost certainly still get filled regardless. The people may have gained jobs without your help. It’s even plausible that they might have gained better paying or more rewarding jobs if they’d never laid sight on you.
Just because you’re involved with a social activity does not mean you can claim causation. Just because you do good does not mean you are good at achieving social outcomes.
You can certainly see why organisations make claims of social impact without evidence or even exaggerate their role in it – it’s great for marketing.
The Fairtrade movement has altered the buying habits of thousands of us. But despite a $7billion a year industry in ‘fairer’ coffee, clothing and other goods there’s limited evidence of the impact on the actual workers involved.
In an era where there is a trust deficit – where belief in charities and non-profits is no longer implicit – it’s the responsibility of all us to go beyond traditional marketing and provide a persuasive evidence base for the impact of our work.
As MacAllister points out – how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway.
Arguably if the organisation you work for cannot demonstrate equal or better social outcomes than your peers – there’s simply no reason for it to exist.