Mastering Social Impact and CSR Strategy Part 3: Benchmarking 

In today’s episode, you’ll learn about the benchmarking or back it up phase when building a social impact strategy. We chat with Nicole McPhail, Co-founder and Managing Partner with Darwin Pivot and discuss how to set the right measurement goals for your program and the impact of an opportunist or risk-adverse leader.

Watch, listen to read the full series on developing a social impact and CSR strategy:

Part 1: The Research phase

Part 2: The Articulate phase

Watch the episode:
Prefer to listen?


Read what we discussed:

Karl Yeh:

So my guest today is Nicole McPhail, who is the co-founder and managing partner with Darwin Pivot. And we're going to be talking about part three of our series on how to build a social impact strategy. So Nicole, what is part three?

Nicole McPhail (00:41):

Okay, so for lack of a better word, I call this one back it up because it's kind of like you've done your research, you have this claim and a hypothesis, and you've got to back it up. You need the sources and weight to support your case. So that's pretty much it. It sounds basic and it is.

Karl Yeh (01:04):

So where do you go about backing it up?

Are you talking about talking to external sources, internal candidates?

How is this a little bit different than I guess step one, which is the research phase?

Nicole McPhail (01:22):

So the research is for people who you need to become a subject matter expert pretty quickly to have any sort of clout or credibility to pitch anything.


And so that's equipping you with a baseline understanding of where the industry is at, where your company is at.

So then you can move into the articulate phase and think about your future state, which is what are you articulating to and what are you solving for?


So then the back it up comes into play when it's like, now how can you pull out and extract the right information knowing what you should be using in order to support your case effectively.

So typically that is a combination of the internal and external research, but I think this is a lot more around benchmarking and really understanding what your decision makers care about to understand what you need to present.

And if you're interested, I could talk about the typical type of decision makers and how you think about backing it up based on that. Would that help?

Karl Yeh (02:31):

Well, I think so because I did want to connect with is this the phase where you are going to go out and it's not really the pitch, but more of finding out, maybe doing that one-on-one with that leader that's C-suite leadership teams, groups, and finding out really what they need to know. Is that part of the backing it up phase?

Nicole McPhail (02:58):

So you've clearly been involved in change management before because of that question, but no, that I would say is more the... Yeah, there's a part actually because you need to talk to some internal sources to understand your decision makers.

So there is a part of that for this one, but it's also part of step four, which is advocacy. And that's where you're going to really start to plant those seeds and get that buy-in.

But this is more around, so typically if you're presenting to some sort of, so this is typically what I see, you have two types of decision makers and you might have a governing board and there might be a combination of this type of person, but this is the general thinking to help you shape how you put your presentation together.

Opportunist Leader

The first is the opportunist leader.

So this is typically say a CEO or someone on the executive team who's going, gra, rah, we love this idea.

I've seen that X company is doing something. How do we make that happen here?

And so the way that you present your research is totally different to this leader because they want to see the art of the possible.

They don't just want standard benchmarking.

They don't care that you are benchmarking against the same company size in industry. Go inspirational.

Even if you're a small company, you could come forward to them with the best program out there and say, this is where we need to go.

But I also have the supporting evidence about why, and that's more just around a behavioral science of what makes people make decisions.

Risk-Adverse Leader

This person wants to be the leader, and then we have the risk averse type leader.

And there's nothing wrong with this type of leader.

And I would say this is more the common personality type.

When you get to the point of making a case and this person, I would actually go in and back it up in a way of this is a state of the world, X percent of people are resigning.

This is what's happening in our company in terms of turnover, and this is what we're hearing from our people, and these are what our direct competitors of similar size and industry who are taking our talent, this is what they're doing.

Can you see the very specific difference there?

And so I think being equipped with both versions of the truth, which are both true, you need to know based on who you're talking to, but really know your audience before you go in there and start presenting your ideas.

Because imagine pitching the opportunist style to the risk averse person. They'd be like, okay, thanks. Get out of the clouds, and vice versa.

Karl Yeh (05:39):

Now when you talk about risk averse leaders or opportunist leaders, is it also a fact that you kind of need to understand not just the leadership side of being risk averse or opportunist, but the type of organization?

Because I would imagine a Fortune 500 company with say 5,000, 10,000 employees is going to be much different building a social impact program from a backing it up phase than a startup or maybe one that has 30 to a hundred employees?

Social Impact: Small business vs. Enterprise

Nicole McPhail (06:16):

Amazing point. Yep. You definitely have to know what your organization is all about. And if you're new, you'll lose credibility pretty quickly if you don't take the time to understand that.

That said, I think sometimes people can limit themselves based on the organization.

So for instance, just because you have a company or organization of 500 people doesn't mean that you can't do things that a hundred thousand person company is doing if your organization is forward-thinking and open to this type of stuff. So definitely you need that context, but don't limit yourself. There's not the need for it sometimes.

Karl Yeh (07:03):

And how long does the backing it up phase usually last? Once you have once you've articulated the problem, once you're backing it up, how long does this take? A couple weeks, a couple months?

How long does the "Back-it-up Phase" last for?

Nicole McPhail (07:19):

You can do it really quickly if you've already done your research and you have a good sense of what's going on in the organization.

The only reason why I like to call it out explicitly is because it's so important to take the time to do it strategically and not just do a data dump.

Not just take every single piece of information that you've learned in the research step. You need to have it be used pretty critically.

So it could be done in 30 minutes if you already know your type of decision maker, but if you don't, then you have to do that research.

And it just depends on how long it takes to talk to your HR VPs and certain people in the organization.

Because at this point, again, this isn't us, I mean, having the conversation. This is just knowing how to frame the conversation.

Karl Yeh (08:08):

So for our audience, what are some, I guess, best practices of benchmarking and backing it up?

Best practices in benchmarking

Nicole McPhail (08:19):

So to summarize some of the ones that we talked about just now, I would say less is more.

Be very specific.

Know your audience and tailor your recommendations based on the type of decision maker they are, and ensure that you don't lose sight of context within your organization.

And then the last one is, don't limit yourself.

So just because you benchmark against a company that is smaller, doesn't mean you can't take best practices from a larger company if your ethos of those companies are aligned.

Karl Yeh (08:54):

Awesome. So Nicole, how would our audience connect with you or Darwin Pivot?

Nicole McPhail (08:59):

Find me at or check us out on our website at