Social impact: should we be talking process or product?

I was reminded recently of the story about Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece.  It is the well-known story of a young man with a goal in mind but in order to achieve that end, he has a long, challenging and arduous journey.   It was an adventure, and throughout the journey Jason grew as a person, became wiser, tackled problems and overcame obstacles.  Although the final product was obtaining a prize, the process involved in trying to attain the prize was equally important.

The lesson learned from this story being…the journey is as important as the destination.  In today’s media parlance – we were on a journey and it was a bit of a rollercoaster but we got through it!

With a bit of a stretch of the imagination it is similar with social impact reporting.  The activities that are done to understand the degree that one’s organisation is making a difference can be as important – if not more important – than the resultant social report.

I have been involved with social accounting and audit for many years.  Working with others, we developed a PROCESS to help organisations collect relevant quantitative and qualitative information relating to their central purpose.  This happens each year in the same way that financial accounts and ‘books’ are kept.

Organisations then bring this information together and report on their performance and on their impact on their stakeholders.   The process is internal to the organisation, owned and controlled by the organisation – thereby empowering it to self-monitor and self-evaluate.

At the end of a year the organisation will produce its own social impact report – this is the PRODUCT.  Thus. the process can be regarded as the ‘journey’ and the social report is the ‘destination’.

With social accounting and audit there is a wee sting in the tail in that the product is externally verified with an audit – again similar to financial annual accounts.  The audit ensures that the final product of the report is valid and a true interpretation of what the organisation has, and has not, achieved during the year.  On passing the audit, a statement is issued – not golden fleece I am afraid – just a signed certificate.

Organisations who regularly keep a set of social accounts and subject them to audit report a number of significant benefits.

The PROCESS helps them understand more clearly what they do to achieve an overall purpose; it forces them to listen to a wide range of different stakeholders; it can keep them on track; it can help them in explaining more clearly what they do; it can be used in organisational record-keeping and learning; it can get people to work together more effectively; and so on.

There are benefits too from producing a report – the PRODUCT.  It can be summarised and distributed widely to stakeholders and the wider public; it can be used to report back to funders; it can be the basis for future planning; it can track change that an organisation has had to deal with; it can be used, in part, to brief outsiders; and so on.

So in social accounting and audit both the PROCESS and the PRODUCT have value.

The Social Audit Network (SAN) was set up to help third sector and community organisation to introduce social accounting and audit into their organisations – and to help them with the process of social accounting as well as producing a social report.

Within SAN we often have the debate – is process more important than the product or vice versa.

I fall more into the process ‘camp’.  For me the final report does have value and I can see the advantages of having the statement endorsing the social accounts.  But it is going through the process that can have a more influential effect on the organisation.  It can help all parts of an organisation not only to take stock on a regular basis but also to reflect on what the organisation is trying to do and how it is doing that.

So many social and community enterprises see a need, respond to it, try and address it, and then get caught up in delivering whatever it is that they do.  Building into the annual organisational cycle a process of data collection and stakeholder engagement to quantify outputs and to understand and to be able to report on outcomes, can be hugely beneficial.  Is the organisation doing the best it can?  Could it be doing something better or more effective? How can it change? How can it plan to improve?

The folk in the product camp stress the value of a report in that it can be used as the central document in an organisation.  It can be used to prove or evidence the work that has been done by the organisation in achieving its ends.

Now if you are a process-type person, you have to be able to accept that processes can be messy.  Through trial and error…and trial again, one learns – and through that learning a deeper understanding begins to emerge.

In researching this blog I came across a website – Prek and K Sharing which deals with working with children to create art.  They argue that in encouraging art the PROCESS of doing is more important than the final PRODUCT.

In the picture below the process is messy and undefined but reflects the learning, while the well-structured neat product is more presentable and more accepted.

process-product

It is the same with social impact reporting.  The process of collecting, collating and making sense of information and opinions can be messy – while the learning from it can be immense.

So which would you choose?  The process (read Jason’s adventurous journey) or the product (read ‘golden fleece’) or both…

Alan Kay – Social Audit Network (SAN) – www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

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