Product Management for Social Impact

By Joni Cooper, Schmidt Futures Senior Manager


This article originally appeared in on February 09,  2023


When you think of your dream Product Management job, what would it be? For me, it’s always been building products and programs that aim to make some difference in the world – whether that be providing Medicare patients with high-quality care, making hiring more equitable, or cultivating the next generation of product managers who want to work in social impact. 


It wasn’t surprising to me that product managing (“PMing”) solutions like the above, in environments ranging from government to the private sector and now philanthropy, would be a fulfilling experience. It’s empowering to wake up every day and engage in work that attempts to move the needle on some of society’s most pressing challenges. However, from a product perspective, I’ve observed some unforeseen nuances. Though you might go through the same phases of the product development lifecycle – product discovery, planning, development, and so on – these phases require a slightly different approach in a social impact context. 


Here are four key nuances I’ve observed about product management in social impact:


  1. Product metrics alone aren’t sufficient in demonstrating societal impact.
  2. Competitive analysis is driven by need as opposed to revenue.
  3. Your target user isn’t necessarily a “superuser,” but rather an overlooked one.
  4. Designing products with as opposed to for users is critical.


  1. Product metrics alone aren’t sufficient in demonstrating societal impact.

Working as a product manager in a mission-driven organization, or as a “social sector PM,” challenges you to truly get to the root of how you measure success. This is because a mission-driven organization’s bottom line isn’t revenue or another easily quantifiable metric, but rather, the impact it has on the world. As a result, metrics are rooted in the effect a product has on those being served. For example, a key metric for a healthcare non-profit might be the number of cancer screenings for low-income individuals. For a humanitarian aid organization, it might be the number of credible, real-time airstrike warnings issued to civilians in conflict zones. However, even metrics like these have their limitations.

Therefore, social sector PMs need to take impact metrics a step further by determining whether a product actually led to real-world outcomes. For example, did more cancer screenings ultimately lead to better health outcomes for low-income individuals? Did more accurate and timely airstrike warnings result in fewer civilian deaths?  To put it simply, in order to determine whether a product actually furthers impact, social sector PMs must have a strong understanding of how individual impact metrics fit into the bigger picture.



  1. Competitive analysis is driven by need as opposed to revenue.

Before jumping into product development, product managers carve out time to conduct market and competitive research, investigating questions like: what new market trends are on the horizon? Who are key players in this market, and what are their value propositions? This certainly remains true for social sector PMs, though these product managers think about market dynamics, and particularly competition, through a different lens.

More specifically, the intent of understanding the competitive landscape and how to uniquely position your organization in a market is not to take market share from others – especially from others that are also trying to do good. Our world has way too many messy problems to solve, and it can use all the help we can.

Rather, a key motivator behind social sector PMs conducting competitive analysis is to understand how they can provide a less costly, more accessible alternative that caters to underserved users. Another motivator is to understand how your organization might complement other players in the market to provide a more holistic solution. 



  1. Your target user isn’t necessarily a “superuser,” but rather an overlooked one.

It’s critical for product managers to determine what user base they’ll be targeting. Usually, product managers will optimize for the highest engagement users. However, you’ll see in many cases social sector PMs intentionally prioritizing lower engagement users, particularly because they’ve been historically overlooked – be it because they’re harder to reach geographically or have less resources (i.e. money, time or social capital). 


Whereas other product managers might target engagement hotspots, social sector PMs capitalize on engagement blind spots. This isn’t to say that high-engagement isn’t important, as it’s key to a product’s adoption. This also doesn’t mean that low-engagement users can’t eventually be converted into high-engagement users, as overlooked individuals too can demonstrate this potential if given the opportunity. However, product managers in mission-driven organizations will often prioritize need, and ultimately equity, over quantity or initial ease of access.



  1. Designing products with as opposed to for users is critical.

A core competency for product managers is user-centricity, or the ability to keep users front of mind when building products. I’ve witnessed many social sector PMs demonstrate the superpower of not just including users on the front and tail-end of the product development process, but rather incorporating them throughout the process, particularly during the design phase. This concept is referred to as co-design, which is defined by Stratos Innovation Group as “the act of creating with stakeholders (business or customers) specifically within the design development process to ensure the results meet their needs and are usable.” Co-design drives home the point that organizations should be building with – as opposed to for – their users to make solutions truly representative of community needs and desires.


One can argue that embedding users and other stakeholders throughout the product development process is more time-consuming, as practices like co-design require coordination and alignment across numerous stakeholders. However, the long-term benefits ultimately outweigh this short-term sacrifice. Product leader and JustFix co-founder Georges Clement says, “The counter would be that you build the right product sooner, so you save time in the long run because you don’t have to pivot so many times.” He also notes that co-creation helps build trust with users by getting them excited about launch and distribution, which in turn, empowers them to advocate for and ultimately adopt your product.


In short, giving users and stakeholders the pen, both figuratively and literally, can not only help with building trust and user adoption, but can also tackle the problem from many more angles and therefore lead to deeper, more systemic impact.



Ready to take the leap into social impact?

I’d encourage every product manager to do a stint in a mission-driven organization. The obvious reason is that they’d be leveraging their talents towards making a real difference in our world. Though another key reason, as described in this piece, is that product management looks different in an impact context. And because of this, it presents a compelling learning opportunity, exposing product managers to new experiences and realities that enable them to develop skills and perspectives they might not have otherwise.


If you’re interested in learning more about product and other tech roles in social impact, check out Tech Jobs for Good, All Tech Is Human, and Fast Forward, which aggregate relevant opportunities in the space via job boards and newsletters. In the meantime, you don’t necessarily need to work in a mission-driven organization in order to practice skills such as refining your metrics so they’re centered on impact, viewing your competitive landscape from different angles, and further integrating users into the product development process. Everyone can take a page from the social sector PM’s playbook.


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