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  • Larry McGill

What's your ambit?

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Although I use it myself, I am not a big fan of the term “impact” when it comes to describing the results of interventions designed to bring about social change. "Impact" is more aptly used to describe interactions among physical phenomena. Think of one billiard ball striking another, imparting its energy into the struck ball and propelling it into a corner pocket. That’s impact.


Social change, though, comes about through interactions among people and institutions. At best, we can design and implement smart and flexible interventions that, all things being equal, lead to positive change in the world. But notice how many qualifiers I’ve included in the previous sentence. “At best;” “smart and flexible;” “all things being equal;” “lead to.” Social change isn’t billiards. It’s far more complex. Most of what happens in the human world is beyond our direct control. And the concept of “impact,” derived from the notion of a controlled experiment, is problematic when most things are beyond our control.


Nevertheless, the work of change agents is predicated upon the belief that certain types of social interventions can “make a difference” if well implemented. And, of course, that’s true. Things do change over time and it is impossible to tell the story of change without pointing to events, actions, and people that played a role in catalyzing change. So, social interventions do matter.


But there is no standard recipe for social change. Because in every situation the ingredients are different. What we can do is maximize our understanding of the ingredients in play, make intentional interventions based on our understanding, pay careful attention to what happens next, and use what we learn to improve our understanding of the situation and the role we can play in making a positive difference. In other words, as social change agents, we need to understand our sphere of influence – our ambit – and how to leverage it most effectively.


“Ambit” is a word you don’t often hear. Its original meaning in 14th century England was the “space surrounding a building or town” (derived from the Latin roots, ambi- meaning “around” and ire meaning “to go)”. In modern usage, it has come to mean “a sphere of action, expression, or influence.” To my ear, this sounds a lot like the work of social change agents and reflects the subtleties of how change actually happens in a way that “impact” does not.


The notion of ambit is also closely related to the idea of power. According to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, an ambit is “a boundary line that indicates ownership of a parcel of land as opposed to other parcels, an exterior or enclosing line; the limits of a power or jurisdiction.” This suggests that what takes place within an ambit is primarily shaped by those having the greatest power within it. Understanding where within our ambit our power lies and where we must put our energies into leveraging the power of others is critical to making change happen.


One of the most important tools we have to help us develop promising intervention strategies is our “theory of change.” Whether explicitly elaborated or not, everyone has a theory of what needs to be done in order to make change happen. But the usefulness of a theory of change depends entirely upon how well we understand our ambit and power relationships within it. Without a clear understanding of our ambit and how to leverage it, our attempts to achieve “impact” will amount to little more than a continuous cycle of trial and error.


We tend to put a great deal of weight on our theories of change. But how well do they incorporate a solid understanding of our present and potential ambit and our ability to exert influence within it? Can you answer the following questions?


· What is the current ambit of your mission-driven organization?

· How can your organization’s influence within its ambit be increased?

· What organizations and institutions are most powerfully positioned within your ambit?

· How can your ambit be expanded?


Understanding your organization's ambit tells you what’s possible and where to direct your best energies in the service of making change happen. Inevitably, impact of some sort will happen. One way or another, the work of your organization and others will lead collectively to outcomes that are not entirely predictable. But organizations with the clearest understanding of their ambit and how to leverage their power within it will maximize their potential to influence those outcomes.

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