Defining Your Impact: Using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to Classify the Impacts of Your Social Enterprise

You’re launching a social enterprise. You run a high-impact nonprofit. Or you work at a for-profit corporation, but want to think more critically and strategically about proactive, positive impact.

You want to do “good” — have a positive impact and effect change. But how do you define what “good” means? How do you communicate the positive impact of your organization to investors that are aligned with your cause?

This set of 17 targets, also known as “the global goals” or just “the SDGs,” was agreed upon and adopted in 2015 as part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs offer a high-level categorization of impact, and outline the key targets and measures identified for investment in each area to achieve the global goals. Because it’s an internationally agreed-upon list, it’s one of the closest things we have as a society to a consensus definition of areas of positive impact and need.

At Ecotone, like many organizations and institutions around the world, we use the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to help our clients classify their areas of impact. For example, let’s say there’s a bakery that offers employment and job skills training for formerly incarcerated people. That supports SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Tying their work to those SDGs helps the bakery quickly communicate their goals to the public, their customers, and potential investors. An investor or grantmaker who wants to invest in peace and justice can instantly identify the bakery as being aligned with their mission.

As the SDGs continue to be used by organizations around the world, we’d love to see it become a more widely understood shorthand for impact. That bakery hiring formerly incarcerated people could display the icons for SDGs 8 and 16 in their front window and on their website — almost like medieval shields displaying the icons of each clan.

Then, when that bakery is ready to measure the impact they’re having, they can refer to the SDGs to guide which metrics they should be paying attention to. Rather than saying, “We’re a nonprofit, of course we’re doing good,” organizations can — and should — provide evidence that their work is achieving progress in an area determined to be important to society as a whole. Using the SDGs to categorize social good is the first step to measuring and accounting for impact, and to using the evidence of impact to design programs and business models.

Our work to help organizations account for their impact — and create business models to fund, scale, and sustain that impact — starts with connecting their work to a global definition of good.

Have you thought about how your work connects to and fulfills the Sustainable Development Goals? Which of the 17 goals are most relevant for your organization?

Further reading

Get the basics:

Dig deeper:

SDGs usage:

There has been some misunderstanding about using them for fundraising. This is directly from the usage guidelines:

“The SDG logo and 17 SDG icons may be used for both informational (primarily illustrative) and fundraising purposes.

Fundraising uses are those that are intended to raise resources to cover costs of activities in support of the SDGs.