This week, we published key results from NationSwell’s first annual social impact leadership survey. Based on responses from 47 individuals, including 17 that represent Fortune 500 companies, the findings contribute new – and occasionally unexpected – insights to our understanding of how social impact leadership is evolving.

As the private sector increases its focus on social and environmental impact, leaders in ESG, CSR, and related disciplines are navigating an inflow of new responsibilities and the increased attention of stakeholders. Employees, customers, C-suite, and investors all bring unique perspectives, incentives, and expectations to the table. And in a year like 2022, there was no shortage of issues for them to raise up. In the past 12 months, we have witnessed the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the highest daily case counts of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple mass shootings, deadly instances of extreme weather, and the repeal of Roe v. Wade – all followed closely by ever-louder calls for the private sector to speak out and step up. Social impact leaders are on the receiving end of those calls.

Through this survey, we were keen to better understand how leaders adapt their priorities and decision-making to meet the moment. Our research was guided by a few core questions – answers to which can provide guidance for social impact leaders as they embark on their work in 2023:

  1. How did leaders assess their organization’s social impact and their personal efficacy within their companies over the past year? While nearly 65% of leaders characterized the social impact environment as challenging over the past year, three-quarters (75%) were satisfied with their organization’s social impact. A similar proportion of respondents (72%) felt that they were individually quite influential over their organization’s social impact during the past year, indicating a high degree of alignment between assessments of individual and organizational performance. However, leaders felt less positively about their organizational response to social and political moments; only about half (58%) of leaders said their company’s response to social and political moments was strong, and even less (29%) felt “very” or “extremely” influential over the company’s response. 
  1. What were the most significant forces that changed the way social impact leaders approached their priorities and decision-making over the past year? A plurality of leaders (34%) found the continued presence of COVID-19 and affiliated workplace disruptions to be the most influential force on their work. In close second (26%), the Russia-Ukraine war had global repercussions that required repositioning of social impact priorities. Despite the pressure for companies to respond to the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade by expanding employee benefits and speaking out against the decision, very few leaders (9%) felt that this critical moment had a significant impact on their job-related priorities or strategies. 
  1. What did leaders do differently based on these forces, and why? Over the past year, most leaders (66%) changed their social impact priorities at least moderately, a slightly larger number than those who anticipate making at least moderate changes in the year ahead (55%). Almost half of leaders (45%) increased involvement with coalitions and peer groups in response to the conditions they faced in the preceding 12 months, indicating awareness of the power in collective action when confronted with ever-increasing social and environmental challenges. Reflecting relatively low confidence in their organization’s response to challenging social and political moments, 51% of leaders sought to build new or better frameworks for navigating those moments going forward.
  1. What are leaders anticipating the environment, their organizations, and their jobs to hold in store for the year to come? Overwhelmingly, leaders are pessimistic about how economic conditions will affect their work in the year to come. While almost half (47%) of leaders felt that economic conditions were a significant barrier over the past year, a considerably larger share (68%) anticipate economic headwinds in the next 12 months. This is by far their greatest anxiety. When asked what will increase their job-related confidence for the next year, nearly a third (30%) of leaders indicated a need for more personnel and 28% identified a need for a larger budget. The largest proportion of leaders (34%) responded that better data on their organization’s social impact would boost their confidence, and a similar number (28%) said the same for more clarity on their organization’s social impact vision and goals.

Our detailed analysis of these findings (and more) can be found in our full report. We encourage you to reach out with any questions, feedback, or personal insight you may have.