Planning Your Transition to Impact

David Scanlon
3 min readNov 29, 2021

This is an extract from Issue 17 of SDG Alpha, my newsletter that casts an Irish lens on the world of Impact Investment, Innovation, and Sustainability.

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I recently took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, as part of our ongoing awareness campaign to promote Accelerate Green (December 10th deadline, folks!). The AMA was hosted by Scale Ireland, whose members posted questions to me on their Slack; it was a fun way to chat about innovation and sustainability, and it’s terrific to see an organisation like Scale Ireland platforming these issues.

One particular question spoke right to the heart of impact transformation, and actually came from one of the earliest supporters of the SDG Alpha newsletter (thanks, CMcH!):

“What can startups that aren’t built around solving a specific sustainability problem do to incorporate sustainability into their business model?”

I thought it would be useful to share the answer I gave here as well, and I’d love to hear from you about how this approach maps to your own experiences.

First, get to know about the problem. The UN SDGs gives us a framework to understand all the challenges humanity faces, from climate, biosphere collapse, to issues relating to social justice. The SDGs really do cover the widest spectrum of human interest and activity, so it’s likely that you will discover a problem or challenge that sparks your own individual passion.

Next, and stealing an axiom from the startup world: get out of the building — talk to your stakeholders, to identify and understand what aspects of sustainability are important to them. Asking who are your stakeholders is similar to asking about the length of the proverbial string: you should start with your own team, then your customers, suppliers, investors — it can be helpful to use a tool like the Business Model Canvas, or Wardley Mapping, to understand how value flows through your org, and the dependencies you have.

Third, consider using a benchmarking tool, such as B Lab’s SDG Action Manager (B Lab are the company behind the B Corp movement/certification), which is designed to help company owners understand which SDG’s matter most, based on your business model. This process, together with understanding the needs/motivations of your stakeholders allows you to understand your company’s impact materiality — that is, the impact (ESG) factors which are most likely to affect your financial condition or operating performance.

At this point, you should have a good sense of what ESG/sustainability problems you’re in a position to solve, and which are the most material to your business continuing to do a good job — these won’t necessarily be the same thing! Working on making your existing operations most sustainable is a smart move, and there’s heaps of tools, guides, and communities out there to support you.

If you’re considering transitioning your business model to solve a specific sustainability problem, there’s also plenty of tools and frameworks that can help you build problem/solution, and eventually product/market fit. As a business leader, you should take time to figure out if your passions align well with the sustainability problem you want to solve: startup life is a daily kick in the head, sustainability doubly so — if your passions aren’t aligned well with the SDG challenge you decide to address, then that regular kicking will become harder and harder to recover from.

Finally, a critical aspect of this is communicating your learnings with your team: if you are intent on building a business that has sustainability at its core, then you need an inclusive strategy to ensure that everyone involved in the business clearly understands, and identifies with that mission.

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David Scanlon

Earthling. Director at Resolve Partners . Ex- @entirl , ex- @StartupGrindDUB , ex- @ndrc_hq . Fan of community, serendipity, Oxford commas, & the open sea.