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The Future of Impact

...and the Imminent Battle in Defining it
-Praveen Chunduru

Call it regressive, but I believe that the future of impact is in efficient non-profits. I will admit that my views are coloured by my own experience in working with VideosForKnowledge (VFK). In VFK, we are able to deliver high quality general awareness videos to students in low-income schools in 7 cities in India at less than $5 per student per year. While this is artificially low (none of VFK members depend on VFK to make their living), I would imagine that if our cost were a reasonable $50 per student reached per year and our base were still the same (3000 students), we could have all 7 of us working full-time while making a decent living. 
$50 (INR 3500) per year per student may seem high by present standards of NGOs promising to feed children a meal a day at a remarkable $10 (INR 650) per year, but we presently lack scale efficiencies. Our software costs are largely fixed in nature, but our video making capability is limited by the time we can dedicate. If we were full-time, we'd be able to produce 6-8 times as many videos as we are making now, and more importantly, we'd be able to focus more on taking timely feedback from teachers, making constant improvements, and assisting them with any issues they face, thus delivering stronger impact. When you consider the substantially enhanced impact we can have, $50 per year per student seems reasonable. 
My reasoning for why efficient non-profits will drive the future of impact is simple: Corporations are good at making profits while non-profits are good at delivering impact. Exxon Mobil can't run a school any better than a school teacher can run an oil rig, and neither should be forced to. We often impose our capitalistic views even on organizations with a social motive and say that they should either figure out a way of making profits or scrape down costs & wages to a subsistence level so that they can attract our donations. Why should that be? I think about VFK, and even if I were to put aside our belief that knowledge should be free, I can't imagine charging either students from low-income backgrounds or underfunded schools to pay for our videos. And yet, enhancing the general awareness levels and aspirations of children in low-income schools is a cause worth pursuing, full-time, by talented people. 
Thankfully, we are seeing governments push corporations to fund social causes and we are seeing large corporations (such as Google) strongly back efficient NGOs. And Khan Academy serves as an antithesis to the age-old dogma that non-profits shouldn't be able to pay competitive salaries. From a for-profit corporation's point of view, funding efficient NGOs makes sense because social impact and brand-enhancement cost less time and money than if they were to pursue those causes on their own. And if the trend started by Khan Academy continues, NGOs can attract and retain top talent (by paying competitive salaries), thereby delivering faster impact. 
All of this brings me to a prediction: As improbable as it seems now, it is inevitable that a credible mechanism of determining impact per dollar invested, emerges. Figuring out which NGO is truly efficient will become easier for funders who no longer have to rely extensively on anecdotal evidence, and NGOs will be forced to push for their views on how to accurately measure impact and correspondingly determine their budgets and target the right type of talent. The resulting mechanism may be controversial, just as credit rating agencies are often controversial, but the world will be a better for having such a system in place. 
The future of impact is thus in efficient NGOs, but before we can get there, a messy and controversial debate about what constitutes impact is imminent. 

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