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If you are reading this, you are probably working towards social change in some way. Think about your counterparts in the space. You are all ultimately working towards the same thing, right? But you probably have very different views about what needs to change, how change should happen, and who should be involved.

This matters because some of you have more power than others. And most of you probably have much more power than the people whose outcomes your work seeks to improve. It is likely that you control access to at least some of the resources they need. This simple definition of power – controlling access to the resources others need - is offered by Professor Julie Battilana of Harvard, our keynote speaker for this year’s Social Outcomes Conference.

Ultimately, it is the more powerful people and institutions who decide what should be done in pursuit of social goals, how, and who by. That is rarely the individuals most acutely affected by social ills, who are given labels that betray their comparative powerlessness: vulnerable, disadvantaged, marginalised. Governments, private organisations, and NGOs can all claim to be making decisions in the best interests of these groups. Some can even claim to represent them. But most have to balance competing interests that may not align, such as those of taxpayers or shareholders. Even NGOs, who may be supposed to have the purest motives, will have to make difficult trade-offs, since they cannot legitimately claim to be tackling every social issue all at once.

Furthermore, the problems of our world cannot be addressed by organisations acting alone. Nor is progress likely to be fast enough without collaboration between the public, private and social sectors. As Prof Battilana says, we are living through a “multidimensional crisis: the intersection of a global public health pandemic, increasing gaps in income and wealth, continued racial and gender inequalities, and the decline of democracy, all happening in front of the backdrop of worsening global warming”. On the surface, organisations across sectors may seem to be united in their pursuit of solutions to these ills, and easily distinguished from those pursuing narrower ends. But the reality is much more complex.

That means we should pay much more attention than we usually do to how governments, companies and NGOs interact in pursuit of better social outcomes. Yet our attention tends to focus on either high-level political statements, or the peculiarities of on-the-ground interventions. Partnerships, contracts, financial instruments, regulations – these are all taken for granted. But rather than mere technicalities, they are potent instruments of power. They describe and determine how organisations negotiate and balance their contrasting roles in pursuit of social goals. All deserve to be better understood, and to be subjected to more innovation. Critically, the voice and agency of those most affected by social problems must be better accounted for in these complex power structures.

These themes will set the tone of the Social Outcomes Conference 2022. The conference will open with Prof Julie Battilana’s talk on “harnessing power for positive impact”, followed by a panel discussion unpacking what that means for cross-sector partnerships for social outcomes. During the conference, we will build on conversations from previous editions around measurement and public value, social impact bonds, public procurement and regional disparity. We will engage in fresh conversations around relational contracting, contracting for net zero, data collaboratives, and systems change. Throughout all these discussions, we will invite participants to explore how those studying or working within cross-sector partnerships might understand the power that ebbs and flows within them, and how that understanding might be used to drive improved social outcomes for populations.

We hope that this theme will give attendees, whether researchers or practitioners, a renewed understanding of how to ensure their work has real-world impact. Changemakers in government can explore how to make change happen with, and through, government bureaucracies, where power structures are often rigid. Those who study government action, or who work with governments from within the social or private sectors, can investigate how to persuade governments to give up some of their power to those closer to social issues, who might be better able to drive more meaningful change. Those who wield private power, or who worry about it, can pick up the themes of last year’s edition of the conference and examine whether private power can be harnessed towards positive social change, or whether it must instead be constrained in pursuit of broader public goals. And all of us should consider the ultimate question: can the populations most affected by complex social problems take power, or must they be given it – and what do they do with it when they have it?

We look forward to seeing you at the Social Outcomes Conference 2022!