About our Research

The Centre for Social Impact’s vision is for a more effective and responsive social system for Australia: a nation where social challenges are addressed by attacking root causes instead of the symptoms; where those affected have a say in the solution; where the most sustained and effective change is rewarded; and where solving our biggest problems is a generator of social value.

CSI takes a complex systems approach to developing innovative solutions to the biggest social challenges and aims to bring together some of the brightest minds to be catalysts for social change. Our research tests how and why and under what circumstances change is achieved. CSI aims to make social impact understood, adaptable and scalable.

Social impact: what change do we want to see?

CSI’s research works towards a stronger society for all, at the nexus between organisation and social change. Our work supports a more effective social system that enables a more resilient, inclusive, and connected society. Our research examines the effects of innovation, ingenuity and collaboration within our social system. We focus particularly on the intersections within systems between entrepreneurs, enterprises, communities and sectors. We tackle the most complex social problems and examine how people, organisations, groups and sectors work and might work differently, and understand changes (outcomes and impacts) over time.

Some of the key social challenges facing Australia

One in five Australians has a mental illness and almost one in five a disability – increasing their risk of being out of work, poorly educated and socially isolated. Australia has an ageing population, which has profound social and economic implications. Our health and aged care costs are rising. Our workforce is shrinking. The Treasury’s Intergenerational Report predicted that by 2050 Australia would only have two and a half working Australians supporting every older person who isn’t working. At the same time, youth unemployment rates are at a 12 year high.

As a population, we battle loneliness, social isolation and disconnectness. We struggle with housing affordability and availability. Median housing prices and rents are continuing to rise.Australia has a shortage of around 600,000 available and affordable rental properties.[1] One-quarter of a million Australians were on social housing waiting lists in 2012 and 60,000 of these were in the ‘greatest need’.[2] With 1 in 200 homeless on any given night, homelessness seems to be somewhat of an intractable problem.[3] And the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is vast and not closing in key areas.[4] In a country with a small population and a large land mass, geographic disadvantage related to global economics and changing demographics remains a problem.

Many of these social problems overlap. An unemployed young person can be helped to find work, but the job won’t last if s/he’s also homeless, has depression and can’t read. Australia’s inequality has increased over the last few decades and our position on the international inequity list has risen.[5] This gap is not just a problem for those who are being left behind. The cost of inequality is not just a problem for those left behind; it affects the functioning of society and the stability and sustainability of the economy.[6]

Our challenge

Australia spends around $300 billion on social purpose. So why aren’t we making a difference? Why are we so stuck? What do we need to do differently? Why are initiatives, services, supports and policies so fragmented? How might we work innovatively to find, finance, measure and understand solutions for complex social problems?

CSI’s research tackles these questions in a range of social areas including disability, mental health, the availability and affordability of housing, homelessness, the diversity and mobility of the population, the inequity gaps between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the population, place-based disadvantaged, financial exclusion and inequities from cradle to grave. We explore how change occurs through different approaches (from social design, to innovation, policy and practice), leadership models, new social business forms, and collaboration within and between sectors. We examine these issues and approaches using a social impact framework.

How can we make change matter? A framework for social impact

CSI’s social impact framework (SIF) sets out our theory for change. We examine how our system and organisations within it can work more effectively to generate social impact.

CSI applies the SIF to our research, while also testing this framework. The SIF looks at:

  • what we’re trying to achieve (social impact),
  • the solutions, innovations and support designed, invested in and provided to achieve social impact (funding outcomes, fostering and scaling social innovation);
  • how we’re going to go about it (collaborative and participative approaches; governance, leadership and management); and
  • how we know whether we’re making a difference (measuring and reporting outcomes and impacts).

Progress in one area of the social impact framework may not contribute to improved outcomes alone. Therefore CSI examines the interactions and intersections between elements. In doing so, we work with the for-profit, not-for-profit and government sectors and at individual, organisational and institutional levels. Recognising the iterative relationship between knowledge and practice, our research intersects with and informs our teaching, events and engagement activities.

Expertise across CSI Universities

Within each of these SIF areas, CSI’s research network draws expertise from its University partners and its affiliates.

UNSW researchers have particular expertise in understanding social problems and how we go about addressing them (using complex systems thinking and social policy and business lenses), measuring and reporting social impact across sectors. CSI Swinburne focuses on the systems and organisations through which social impact is produced, with particular expertise in social innovation, social investment and philanthropy and social enterprise. CSI UWA works to advance the welfare and prosperity of people through key areas of expertise including social markets, innovation and design; social impact assessment; and social finance, philanthropy and investment.

The CSI network’ s disciplinary expertise spans social policy; economics; management; accountancy; marketing; sociology; and history. Our methodological capabilities include qualitative, survey, ethnographic, case study and action research; economic modelling; and comparative policy, organisational and social network analysis.

How we undertake our work

One of CSI’s key strengths is our willingness and ability to effectively collaborate within and across institutions and sectors. This is one of a number of principles that underpin our research, teaching, events and engagement:

  • We work with others: We understand that we cannot achieve change alone. We bring sectors, organisations and research leaders together and maintain and grow effective research partnerships and alliances.
  • We bring rigour, ethics and expertise: We specialise in and are known for our areas of expertise and bring rigour and ethics to our work. We want to be trusted thought leaders in priority areas.
  • We work for social value not for profit: Our income gets reinvested into work that contributes to social impact.
  • We want to have impact: Our research, education, events and engagement aim to contribute to social change. We aim to build capacity and to educate leaders, managers, governors, policy makers or others aiming to have social purpose.
  • Our work is useful, understandable and influential: We know that if our work is going to be influential it must be relevant and easily communicated to different people, communities and sectors.


[1] National Housing Supply Council (2012) Housing Supply and Affordability – Key Indicators, 2012, Australian Government, Canberra, http://www.treasury.gov.au/~/media/Treasury/Publications%20and%20Media/Publications/2012/NHSC/Downloads/PDF/housing_supply_affordability_report.ashx.

[6] Stiglitz, J. (2013), The Price of Inequality: how today’s divided society endangers our future, W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Key Contact

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