Measuring Social Value is a Tricky Business. So What do the Experts Think?

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Measuring Social Value is a Tricky Business. So What do the Experts Think?

Just how important is data? What measurement tools are out there? This range of insights should help you off the starting block.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 10:00am


If you’re thinking about incorporating social value in a serious way, you’re certainly not alone. Many companies are cottoning on to the fact that creating positive social impact is not just for those who want to do good, but also those who want to help their business flourish. As it turns out, Coca-Cola Enterprises put some numbers against this late last year, in a study that found that some 90% of CEOs and future business leaders believe businesses should have a social purpose.

Not only is such an enterprise benefitting the community where it is operating, but it’s also turning customers into evangelists, and attracting and retaining the new generation of talent – aka, your future leaders.

Deciding to make an impact is only the first step in the journey.Deciding to make an impact is only the first step in the journey. If you’ve set specific targets, how will you ascertain if you’ve achieved them? If you want to extend a particular project, what are you going to tell your stakeholders about the value it’s bringing?

As I’m sure you’ve discovered already, the problem with measuring social impact is that numerous bodies define it differently, making it a little tricky to put a universal ‘value’ on it. There are also several terms to describe it: social utility, social value, shared impact… it’s no wonder companies are getting a little baffled.

Here, we round up some advice from the experts to help you best place your measuring stick.

Data, data, data...

Social value is such a topical, thorny issue that Sky took to the Twitter sphere to facilitate discussion with #ChatSocialValue. With his limited characters, Sustainly’s Matt Yeomans argued that measurement is “key to tying social value to core business”. “Ultimate sustainability must equal profitability,” he tweets. Adrian Henriques at Middlesex University agrees that measurement shouldn’t center solely on community projects; the bigger problem is what to do about mainstream business activities. “Mainstream activities also have social consequences – and in general these will be much larger and more significant than those of a company’s community programs,” he writes. “So it is even more important to measure them.”

So how do we do that? Contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not necessarily a lack of data. In fact, says Helen Heap at ClearlySo, there’s a wealth of government and other data that can be used. “However, it is often very difficult to know what information is available, and how and where to find it,” she notes. She suggests overcoming this hurdle with a “Social Value Databank”, where you can access information on metrics, research, measurement tools and comparison. As it happens, Uscreates has produced something not so far from this idea. Its Social Value Measurement Toolkit squeezes in guidance, inspiration and practical advice from organizations that have actually delivered social value successfully into one handy document.

Other experts suggest not getting too bogged down in the data.But for all those that love getting their hands on the numbers, other experts suggest not getting too bogged down in the data. Coethica’s David Connor advises companies not to get lost in the “cult of measurable”. “Data for its own sake can stifle innovation”, he tweets in #ChatSocialValue , noting that it is important, particularly for SMEs to “‘feel’ their way and experiment early on”.

Judy Hill at Sky Academy agrees. Yes, the statistics are important, but they aren’t everything. “When you see numbers, such as ‘91% of teachers say they are seeing improvement in self-esteem among young people that take part in SSLFS’ it does make you proud,” she says, in a fascinating web clinic on corporate-NGO partnerships. “But the stats are only half the story; we also celebrate the individual stories every year, for example through events like our annual SSLFS Awards, and these really bring the impact to life.”

There's no silver bullet

This may be one of the most readily reeled off phrases in the business arena, but it might be comforting to know that other companies are grappling with exactly the same dilemma, and that everyone is really, still figuring it out.

Sustainability writer Katharine Earley provides an excellent round-up of some of the measurement techniques (and those who are using them), including mapping the social value chain, calculating Social Return on Investment (SROI) and communicating the impact alongside independent analysis amongst others – a broad selection, as what method suits one, might not suit another.

When it comes to SROI, an easy starting point might be this online self-assessment tool – comprised of a seven stage questionnaire, the tool shows results as a spider chart illustrating areas of strength and areas for improvement. If you’re a public sector body, the Social Value Portal also has a free tool to help you calculate social value in a way that is meaningful to your Public Sector clients and in turn permits Public Sector clients to compare tenders. For the social sector, ClearlySo’s Heap recommends Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS), Global Impact Investing Rating System (GIIRS) or Pulse, thanks to the large amount of effort that’s been invested in these three – she provides a great overview of them here.

Meanwhile, Joss Tantram at Terrafiniti takes a detailed look at the benefits and difficulties with measuring social impact. “There is a fast growing range of tools and approaches for measuring social impact,”he writes , “yet the majority of such approaches are designed for charities, not-for profits and impact investors.” He points to Shared Value, an approach that shares its economic activity (and intent for it) amongst all its actors, rather than a select few, and B-Corps, a certification scheme for business, with a simple question that underpins the assessment of enterprises, “Is the world a better place because we exist?

If you’re looking for some super examples of such, B-Corps recently announced its ‘Best for the World’ list – the best performing 120 companies (that’s the top 10% of the 1,200 certified B-Corps around the world) according to the B Impact Assessment, “a rigorous and comprehensive assessment” of each company’s impact on its workers, community, and the environment. Phew.

My brain hurts...

If you’re feeling paralysed into inaction for fear of doing it wrong – take heed; there is good news. “You are never going to be able to measure your total Shared Value from day one, or year one,” writes Uscreates in its Toolkit. “Hardly any company in the UK has a rounded understanding of the Social Value they create, both positive and negative. It is incredibly complex and a work-in-progress for most.”

Or, as Sustainly’s Yeomans suggests, “Don’t talk about it. Do it and then shout about it to everyone.”

This article was originally published on the 2degrees website
Victoria Knowles is content editor at 2degrees, where she is responsible for delivering content, specifically in the areas of customer and employee engagement, social value and water management. Her role is to keep up with the latest sustainability issues that businesses and organisations face, and present these in an engaging and informative manner, while promoting the sharing of ideas, knowledge and solutions.

Keywords: 2degrees | Business & Trade | Corporate Social Responsibility | Social Impact | Toronto Sustainability Speakers Series (TSSS) | profitability | social value | sustainability