One of the things social impact promotes the most is a “win-win” situation. Social entrepreneurs play a positive sum game where the well being of multiple stakeholders is secured. That’s the intention. Realistically, the sweet spot of everyone thriving is not always obvious in the process.
Advocates gather and share information to understand different sides of a social impact concern. This process of uncovering perspectives often gives context to the solution you try to build. What’s fascinating is that you may hit a point where you look at everything you gathered and stop.
You stop, realizing that there doesn’t seem to be a clear path or hunch to go forward on. All the perspectives describe the social impact concern differently.
Where is the Overlap?
The sweet spot social entrepreneurs look for is right where the needs of multiple stakeholders overlap. How can you determine where that overlap is? You may need to think back to your school days for this one. Do you remember Venn Diagrams?
A Venn Diagram is a collection of circles that visually show where separate categories coexist or stand alone. The illustration is used to sort a topic into these different relations between categories.
When there’s less to think about, there’s more possibility for an overlap. A simple split between stakeholders could make it easier to find a middle ground. With more roles involved, the sweet spot needs to include more factors.
Unlike Venn Diagrams, impact concerns have a possibility of perspectives opposing each other. Venn Diagrams show similarities and differences, but don’t capture how differences can cancel each other out or never have overlap.
Imagine this everyday example of Jackie hanging out with friends.
Jackie wants to introduce a school friend to their coworker since Jackie knows they’d all get along. The three of them want to hang out at a cafe and just need to pick a place.
The coworker loves cats and suggests a cat cafe. Since Jackie knows their school friend has a severe allergy to cats, they’d know the cat cafe option won’t work.
In such a scenario, the friends can easily choose another cafe and have a great time. For times when choosing is not so easy, there has to be some way to get everyone on the same page when juggling the input of different stakeholders. Perhaps it’s possible if what defines the overlap changes.
Redefine the Overlap
Advocates desire a clean, easily-identifiable overlap. In reality, impact concerns usually have more than two stakeholders to pay attention to with completely distanced experiences, which can lead to overlaps where someone is left out.
What if you question how you define the overlap of the perspectives? What if the lack of overlap is as simple as redefining the criteria you use to find the middle ground?
Going back to Jackie & Friends, let’s say the cafe hang out is successful and they plan a movie night at Jackie’s place. Each friend has different preferences for movie genres.
Jackie: Romance, Sports, Biopic
School Friend: Fantasy, Detective, Musical
Coworker: Coming-of-Age, Funny, Cartoon
Looking at that collection there seems like there’s absolutely no overlap.
Until Jackie has an idea…
Jackie: It looks like we enjoy stories that take us on a journey. How about we try an adventure film?
School Friend: I’m in, but I prefer if it’s not too cheesy or predictable.
Coworker: Sounds fun as long as there’s not too much blood in the fight scenes.
The friends start movie night after deciding on a movie that seems to fit what they need. By questioning what they used to define their criteria, Jackie:
- Recognized an underlying theme the friends liked.
- Gathered new feedback based on redefined criteria.
- Found a reasonable middle ground the friends could agree on.
What Happens When Stakeholders Describe the Concern Differently
Let’s apply the basic takeaways we have from the first two examples and place them in a generalized situation about local food systems.
In this new scenario we have the Farmers Market (Jackie) and two friends they want to bring together, which are Consumers (school friend) and a Local Farm (coworker). Similar to how “finding a movie” was the problem for Jackie & Friends, “establishing a local food system” is the concern for this new scenario. With this situation, the three counterparts describe the concern differently based on the criteria they value.
Farmers Market: We want to make sure the produce options we carry matches what consumers are willing to buy. Which produce are you willing to buy?
Consumers: We want to know the prices so we can decide how we’ll spend money on groceries. What are the prices?
Local Farm: We want to make sure we know what the consumers want most so we grow specific crops to meet the demands. Which crops have the highest demand?
Everyone thinks the actual “concern” is different. Not exactly easy to spot a middle ground when so much of what each stakeholder values seems to conflict or counteract another stakeholder.
Until the Farmers Market has an idea…
Farmers Market: It looks like we all want to figure out the produce selection. Let’s start with a basic list. What’s most important to you about a basic selection?
Consumers: We want a selection that allows us to afford fresh ingredients that last for a few days.
Local Farm: We want a selection that matches the season’s best crops.
From this new feedback, the Farmers Market asks the Local Farm to come up with a list of in-season produce that can last a few days. The Farmers Market takes this list to Consumers and asks them to mark off what they think they’d buy from the list during an average grocery trip. The Farmers Market then works on a budget of what they can buy from the Local Farmers Market and how they can best price the produce for Consumers.
Finding Middle Ground
Middle ground sometimes exists when you take a few steps back to see the core values driving the preferences. When people first view a concern, they are viewing it from their very specific angle.
We often forget that the way we describe something is actually the conclusion we came to from our first observation, opinion, or value.
“We don’t want to overstock so we need to know what you will buy.”
“We want to be able to afford enough groceries so we need to know the prices.”
“We don’t want to waste supplies on crops that won’t sell so we need to know the demand.”
Getting the most important things you want from negotiating is the middle ground. It’s this focus of choosing what’s worth it to have. It’s the safety of addressing the strongest driving force behind a stakeholder’s preference. That is something you may want to explore the next time you find stakeholders describing a social impact concern differently.