Sub-theme 03: [SWG 03] Social Impact in, and through, Civil Society

Liesbet Heyse
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Gorgi Krlev
ESCP Business School, France
Marta Reuter
Stockholm University, Sweden

Call for Papers

One of civil society’s central functions is that of binding communities together and structuring social orders in a fair way (Alexander, 2006). To speak with the EGOS Colloquium 2023 theme, in public debate and in research civil society is often constructed as the arena for organizing for the “good life”. Whether as defenders of rights or of just causes, advocates of disadvantaged groups, or service providers, civil society organizations (CSOs) are also often seen as key drivers of social innovation (Krlev, Anheier & Mildenberger, 2019). At the same time, numerous factors obstruct CSOs’ efforts of promoting well-being in their communities: e.g., failing performance, focus on symbolic rather than tangible effects, destructive power dynamics, or neglect of the negative side effects. The extent to which organizing in civil society actually leads to positive results in terms of social innovation, cohesion, or sustainability, is a central topic in contemporary civil society research.
This sub-theme focuses on the social impact of organizing in and through civil society. Social impact, defined as the beneficial effects that organizations produce for their target groups (Rawhouser, Cummings, & Newbert, 2017) is becoming a key concern for broader organizational research (George et al., 2016; Stephan et al., 2016). However, recent research highlights serious gaps in our understanding of how to best conceptualize and assess such impact (Ebrahim, 2019).

  • First, there is a dominance of impact studies that stress technical components, in the tradition of the established performance measurement literature, relative to research that focuses on softer and arguably more relevant impacts at the levels of emotions, thoughts or lived experience (Beer & Micheli, 2018).
  • Second, the largest part of the organizational literature is not dealing with impact or outcomes, but focuses on the inputs or outputs of organizational activity (Wry & Haugh, 2018).
  • Third, when researchers try to address impact, they tend to produce generic estimates of the impacts of whole organizations or even institutions rather than a detailed analysis of specific organizational activities and how these affect target groups (Barnett, Henriques, & Husted, 2020).

These gaps seriously limit the development of theory, measures and methods for assessing e.g. new ways of civic wealth creation (Lumpkin & Bacq, 2019) or new kinds or performance criteria, which are going to be crucial for organizational management and governance in the future (Nason, Bacq, & Gras, 2018). They also stymie our ability to conceptualize how effective social problem-solving works (Howard-Grenville et al., 2019). This is of particular concern to organizing in and through civil society, where such problem-solving is the raîson d’être of most organizations.
We invite scholars to address a broad range of theoretical, empirical and methodogical aspects of social impact assessment. The issues we are interested in include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • How can we develop our theoretical and empirical understanding of social impact to capture essential dimensions of the good life within the context of civil society organizing?
  • What are the primary ways in which civil society organizations produce social impact, and where does their social impact potential face serious limits? How do CSOs compare in this regard to businesses and public administration?
  • In what ways do relationships with business and state actors contribute to or hamper CSOs’ ability to generate social impact?
  • Through what means do CSOs themselves contribute to the emergence and institutionalization of different conceptions of “the good life” or “desirable social impact”?
  • How can social impact studies produce empirical evidence that changes how we think about the good life and how societal stakeholders, including CSOs themselves, but also policy makers or impact-oriented investors, make their decisions?
  • To what extent is the very concept of “social impact” and the way it is currently used in research beneficial for the study of the effects of civil society organizing? Under what circumstances does it promote deeper understanding of such effects, and when does it supress insights?

Given the multi-level and dynamic nature of social impact, we are open to a variety of methodologies (quantitative, qualitative, mixed) and theoretical perspectives. Given that the topic is of relevance to scholars from different fields and disciplines, we welcome contributions from, for example, political science, public administration, anthropology, economics, management, sociology, etc.


  • Alexander, J.C. (2006): The Civil Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • André, K., Cho, C.H., & Laine, M. (2018): “Reference points for measuring social performance: Case study of a social business venture.” Journal of Business Venturing, 33 (5), 660–678.
  • Barnett, M.L., Henriques, I., & Husted, B.W. (2020): “Beyond Good Intentions: Designing CSR Initiatives for Greater Social Impact.” Journal of Management, 46 (6), 937–964.
  • Beer, H.A., & Micheli, P. (2018): “Advancing Performance Measurement Theory by Focusing on Subjects: Lessons from the Measurement of Social Value.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 20 (3), 755–771.
  • Ebrahim, A. (2019): Measuring Social Change: Performance and Accountability in a Complex World. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Farr, M., & Cressey, P. (2018): “The social impact of advice during disability welfare reform: From social return on investment to evidencing public value through realism and complexity.” Public Management Review, 21 (2), 238–263.
  • George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., & Tihanyi, L. (2016): “Understanding and Tackling Societal Grand Challenges through Management Research.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 1880–1895.
    Howard-Grenville, J., Davis, G.F., Dyllick, T., Miller, C.C., Thau, S., & Tsui, A.S. (2019): “Sustainable Development for a Better World: Contributions of Leadership, Management, and Organizations.” Academy of Management Discoveries, 5 (4), 355–366.
  • Krlev, G., Anheier, H.K., & Mildenberger, G. (2019): “Introduction: Social innovation – What is it and who makes it?” In: H.K. Anheier, G. Krlev & G. Mildenberger (eds.): Social Innovation. Comparative Perspectives. London: Routledge, 3–35.
  • Lamont, M. (2012): “Toward a Comparative Sociology of Valuation and Evaluation.” Annual Review of Sociology, 38 (1), 201–221.
  • Lumpkin, G.T., & Bacq, S. (2019): “Civic Wealth Creation: A New View of Stakeholder Engagement and Societal Impact.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 33 (4), 383–404.
  • Nason, R.S., Bacq, S., & Gras, D. (2018): “A Behavioral Theory of Social Performance: Social Identity and Stakeholder Expectations.” Academy of Management Review, 43 (2), 259–283.
  • Rawhouser, H., Cummings, M., & Newbert, S.L. (2017): “Social Impact Measurement: Current Approaches and Future Directions for Social Entrepreneurship Research.” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 43 (1), 82–115.
  • Stephan, U., Patterson, M., Kelly, C., & Mair, J. (2016): “Organizations Driving Positive Social Change: A Review and an Integrative Framework of Change Processes.” Journal of Management, 42 (5), 1250–1281.
  • Wry, T., & Haugh, H. (2018): “Brace for impact: Uniting our diverse voices through a social impact frame.” Journal of Business Venturing, 33 (5), 566–574.
Liesbet Heyse is an Associate Professor of Organization Sociology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She studies nonprofit and public organizations that aim to improve the situation and position of disadvantaged groups in society. Her focus is on the relationship between these organizations' policies and interventions, their organizational features, and the results of their operations. Liesbet studies these issues in organizations such as humanitarian NGOs, and Dutch municipalities and NGOs working on the labour market integration of refugees, applying both qualitative and quantitative methods.
Gorgi Krlev is an Assistant Professor of Sustainability at ESCP Business School in Paris, France. He also holds a Visiting Professorship at Politecnico di Milano, Italy, and a Visiting Fellowship at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, UK. In his research, Gorgi deals with social entrepreneurship, social innovations and impact, with a particular focus on how cross-sector collaborations or new field emergence promote societal transformations and contribute to addressing environmental and social sustainability challenges.
Marta Reuter is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Public Administration at Stockholm University, Sweden. She is also affiliated with the Stockholm Center for Civil Society Studies, Stockholm School of Economics. Marta’s research interests concern the relationship between civil society and the state; civil society policy; the roles of different types of CSOs in societal governance; and internal organizational CSO governance.