The art of making social impact interesting…

Lots of people have heard of ‘social accounting and audit’ but they are not sure what it actually is and what it entails.  Rumour often has it that it is complicated and involved.  However, I would argue that it actually is quite simple…

…you re-assert what you, as an organisation, aims to do and how whilst at the same time identifying who you are working with and for;

…you collect information – both quantitative and qualitative – to see if you are meeting your overall purpose;

…you bring all that information together, usually (but not always), into a report; and then…

…you get it independently checked to provide the report with integrity.

Thus, four easy and simple steps with the last one being the ‘audit’.

I believe that there is no getting away from having to apply the first three steps.  In the last few years there are an increasing number of people and institutions reformulating these steps in different ways – adding to what seems like a confusing plethora of different approaches.  The contrary is the case – they are all very similar and all maintain the three steps albeit dressed up in slightly different packages.

In introducing some form of social impact assessment into your organisation, be conscious of where it is ‘located’ within your organisation.  Often organisations will tack it on as an additional activity as can be seen in the diagram on the left – an add-on that may persuade funders to continue to support the organisation.

Embed diagram

The real trick – and the thing that makes a difference in adopting an integrated social impact process, is to try and ‘locate’ social impact at the core of the organisation as in the diagram on the right.  This will mean that social impact assessment is an integral part of what you actually do.  This can then contribute hugely to planning, reporting, as well as decision-making – it can have multiple uses.

Moving social impact into the centre or your organisation requires a bit of thought and planning but it means that the process of collecting data becomes part of what you do and not seen as an ‘extra’ to what you do.  In many ways this relates to the way we learn which is epitomised by the Kolb Cycle (see diagram below) where we bring forward a concept, test it out, experience the change, then reflect on that experience and this leads back into new forming new concepts.  Social impact for organisations resides in the reflective part of the cycle.

Kolb's Experiential Learning Model

So far I have tried to show the process of social impact and where that process lies within an organisation that is trying to make social change.  But why would we want to do it?  For me it is really about seeing if you, as an organisation, are really making a difference.  And if you are, can you prove it and thus can you improve as a more effective organisation.

Within the world of social impact there is a lot written about measurement.  What cannot be measured easily is often ignored – but many of the social changes that an organisation with a central social purpose aspires to achieve, are difficult – if not nearly impossible to measure.

So should we be trying to measure them at all?  For the purposes of assessing the social impact you are making, is it not sufficient to assess as fairly as possible whether or not you are making a difference and to what degree?

Back in the 1970s I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Many people had it stuffed in their corduroy jacket pockets to take it out to impress people on trains and such like.  Despite using it as an accessory, it is an amazing book and much of it is about how we understand quality.  This is not an easy thing to do and the book illustrates how we seem to understand quality without being able to measure it – just like many things in life that we truly value. An illustrative quote typical to the book is…

Quality… you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is.  But that is self-contradictory.  But some things are better than others, that is they have more quality.  But when you try to say what the quality is…it all goes poof!

So this leads us on to reporting your social impact – not only on the quantitative data which is relatively easy to understand – but also how to consider the qualitative data.  In the social accounting and audit process there is a recommendation to collect qualitative opinion and views from several different stakeholder groups.  This multi-perspective approach (which in academia is referred to as triangulation) means that if you are more or less getting the same sorts of views from different groups’ perspectives then you can be reasonably sure you are getting closer to the truth.

Let’s go back to the original title of this blog. How can we make social impact, not only more relevant by placing it at the core of the organisation, but also interesting to do and interesting for participating stakeholders?

I was recently involved in supporting the GENERATION Co-production programme and helped them keep social accounts on their outcomes.  This outreach programme worked with five separate arts projects across Scotland – all of them exposing young people actively to the creative arts.  The programme lasted almost two years and what was really interesting was that the social accounting process used the medium of art itself in collecting qualitative information from the young participants.  Instead of the traditional questionnaires/interviews/events/etc., young people were invited to draw pictures and ‘storyboards’ of their experiences.  They were then filmed telling their stories and all the information was put up onto a website.

This illustrates how the consultation with stakeholders can be integrated into the core of what the organisation is trying to do.  Similarly, different types or organisation can find ways to integrate the consultation process into the delivery of their initiative.  It is not outside the bounds of possibility for nurseries and schools to have evaluative games, for those holding training or events to have dialogue sessions on assessing change, for sports clubs to have physical challenges in obtaining feedback and so on.

This thinking and subsequent implementation means that the social impact process becomes part of what you do and not just an add-on.

At the end of the GENERATION Co-production programme the social accounts were, however, written up in a more traditional report form but they drew on the information collected on the website.  Both the final detailed report and the illustrative summary will be publicly available soon.

In conclusion, in working to encourage organisations to adopt a social impact framework we have to encourage them to pull the process of social impact into the centre of the organisation – a crucial and integral part of what the organisation is actually trying to do.  At the same time organisations should explore how to consult on the quality of their services in a way that is appropriate to what they do…Eureka!

Alan Kay, Social Audit Network (SAN)