The brutality of the word “Social Impact” — and why metaphors matter

Fabian Pfortmüller
Together Institute
Published in
3 min readJan 4


Image source: Live Science

This image is what I think of when I hear the word “impact”.


A massive, heavy object hitting something else and thereby creating a big crater.

It feels brutal, violent, aggressive, loud, dangerous.

And yet it’s the main metaphor for the type of work I’m trying to do in the world. Social Impact. It is how many of us think about how change is supposed to happen.

The brutality of social impact

Ever since Mansi Gupta pointed out the violent nature of the word impact, I see it reflected in the way the Social Impact space is actually operating. Social impact is based on the assumptions that change is hard, but that it’s our duty to change the world around us, often against its will. The way we change the world is by pushing hard, harder, the hardest. People like myself burning themselves out trying to have impact? That’s natural. If you’re not working till exhaustion, how could you be having impact? A big crater doesn’t dig itself. Impact has, of course, to be measurable. Only a big crater means you really had impact. Small impact means small results (means small self worth). Big impact means big results (means big self worth). We all know that impact has to scale (we learned that from capitalism that created many of the issues we’re trying to solve with social impact). Never mind the crater we leave behind. Destruction is unavoidable. We tried our hardest. Change is hard. We gave our best.

Even better with an exclamation mark! (Recently at Delhi airport)

Metaphors shape us

As we are trying to change the world around us, we have to pay attention to the metaphors we use. Our metaphors aren’t just words. They shape the way we see the world. They create a semi-conscious value system of what is good and bad. They provide us with a story in which we operate.

It’s time to move away from Social Impact, both in word and deed.

We are looking for a metaphor that isn’t inherently brutal and, instead, encourages health, kindness, care, love, gentleness, joy, balance, rest, personal transformation. We are looking for a metaphor that strengthens life, not destroys life.

Easier said than done. What metaphors have you found that feel more aligned with your values? I’m starting to use social change and social transformation in my every day, but I’m feeling lacklustre about it. “Regenerative” and “transformation” has definitely many of the right qualities, but “regenerative transformation” just feels like one big buzzword waiting to pop…

What language works for you?

Thank you

A big thank you to Mansi Gupta for pointing me to the deeper meaning behind the word “impact”!

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Fabian Pfortmüller
Together Institute

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, |