All posts by goldfish4breakfast

Social Value – why are we forgetting the planet?

The increasing interest in ‘social value’ has led to an expansion of the social economy, big corporates rushing to show their ethical credentials and public sector organisations publishing their policies and new procurement strategies for social impact…

But a swift review of these actions shows a worrying trend – we are starting to overlook the environment.

In England and Wales, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires public bodies to consider how the services they commission and procure might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area.

What is not widely known is that social value originated in response to environmental sustainability policy and practice. Indeed, in construction, the concept of sustainability has been ‘business as usual’ for many years.

I believe that in 2017 there is now a pressing need to focus on the places where people live, the environment around us and the resources that we use. Increasing population causes waste, uses natural resources and creates global warming…. Whilst politicians pull away from arguably ineffectual climate change agreements, the impacts of human activity on our planet and people expand in scale and depth.

We have already seen global warming rising by over 1 degree, and climate change is now leading to increasingly severe impacts – from rapidly melting sea ice at the poles and 50-degree heatwaves in India, to floods in Bangladesh and drought in California. The UK is seeing dramatic impacts too – with severe flooding in almost every region and country in the UK in recent years[1].

In Manchester air pollution causes over 1,000 premature deaths each year[2]. Local authorities spend billions of pounds each year dealing with waste. Fly tipping is on the increase. Energy costs are spiralling. Green belt land is being sacrificed to build homes…

I originally trained as a landscape architect and learned about how to create a ‘genius loci’. Gardeners such as Capability Brown created spaces where people wanted to be and felt happy; a sense of place that makes people feel good. It’s not really surprising that the happiest place to live in the UK is the Outer Hebrides.[3] Away from all that pollution so common on the mainland, in a beautiful landscape, with renewable energy schemes and pride in the local environment. But even this idyllic life is under threat from sea level rise.

So, if our planet is suffering, and our people’s health and wellbeing is at risk; how can we reverse the trend of ‘social value’ being only about jobs, training and doing local business? (Surely these are really economic factors anyway?)

Instead of ‘socio-economic’, should we be thinking about ‘socio-environmental’? We may be helping people to access employment, but are they physically and mentally healthy enough to stay in these jobs?

Perhaps it’s time for a renewed look at ‘think global, act local’ – many little things done near to home can make a difference. But we now need more of the difference to be made closer to home as well as for our planet.

If ‘social value’ must include environmental benefits – as the legislation states – then using the Social Audit Network’s www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk social accounting methodology is one way to prove the positive benefit that you can have on the environment; to manage and improve your performance; and be accountable for this to your stakeholders – and the planet.

SAN resources include a simple ‘green office checklist’ and tips on how to calculate your carbon footprint. There are many simple online tools available for tracking environmental measures.

Being accountable for environmental measures is a compulsory element of the SAN methodology. We have been challenged for this. Why should an organisation which is set up for a purpose such as providing training opportunities for young people have to report on its environmental impact?

The answer is because the organisation might use natural resources and energy, create waste or pollutants, employ staff who travel; and because those young people might be living shorter lives affected by air pollution, in an unpleasant and dirty neighbourhood, unable to afford to heat their homes. AND because we are heading for a climatic emergency – over 3 degrees warming – and we all will need to do everything that we can to protect humanity from catastrophic levels of climate change.

Anne Lythgoe, Social Audit Network – info@socialauditnetwork.org

[1] Friends of the Earth 2017

[2] Public Health England 2015

[3] Office for National Statistics 2016

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Social impact: Success or failure? Nothing succeeds as much as learning the lessons from failure…

I have written several obituaries in my life.  It is not easy to describe what someone has done and what they have achieved in a few paragraphs.  It also raises the question of success – have these people succeeded in what they have done?  Have they attained their individual goals?  Can we consider their life as being a success – or a failure?

This got me thinking about what do we mean by success – what yardstick can we use; and, indeed, are the conventional yardsticks the ‘right’ ones?

In introducing this, allow me a couple of anecdotes.

A relative of mine is just graduating and his father was saying that he hopes he gets a job in the City of London and makes lots of money.  Why?  Because he will then be regarded by his peers and others as a ‘success’. 

Mmm…

About twenty years ago I met an elderly Irish priest in Central Java.  He had moved there donkey’s years previously and worked in what we used to call ‘community development’.  He worked with community groups supporting them to improve their and their children’s, livelihoods.  He did this very successfully but with little recognition.

Mmm…

These contrasting examples raise several points about what we mean by success. ‘Success’ (or indeed failure) is dependent on the definition of ‘success’ – and more particularly the parameters used to define ‘success’ which are often dictated by the society and culture that one is a part of…

Defining and measuring success is as important for enterprises as it is for people.  With enterprises, assessing success depends on the type of business as different types of enterprise use different measures for assessing their success or failure:

  1. With mainstream commercial business, recognising success is relatively easy. If a business is growing, if the turnover is increasing year on year, if the profit margins are widening; if shareholders’ dividends are increasing – then it is seen as a successful business.
  2. With a business that has a social conscience and a strong commitment to social responsibility, success can be assessed by the normal business measurements alongside how much money and resources are given for charitable or social aims.
  3. With a social or community enterprise, assessing success gets a bit more complicated. These are enterprises that use economic activity to benefit people and communities, provide value to society and are consciously not adversely affecting the environment.  Achieving these things is their core business – not just an add-on to a mainstream business activity.

However, in reporting on success/failure, a social or community enterprise has specific challenges.  One of the most immediate problems is to regularly report on how they affect people, communities, the environment, the local economy and the prevalent culture.

Social enterprises often consider that it would be good to do this – but why, as it is not a statutory requirement? And then how can it fit in with what they are already doing?  How do they know it is a good use of resources to report regularly? And how do they understand and demonstrate whether or not they are successful in achieving their main purpose? In other words, how do social and community enterprise assess their success or failure?

In the Social Audit Network (SAN), we have been grappling with some of these key questions. Social accounting and audit is the framework used by SAN.  In supporting social and community enterprises to keep track of successes and failures, we believe enterprises should be clear about what they do, how they do it and who is affected; collect qualitative and quantitative information; report on successes and failures; and get the report verified through a ‘social audit’ process.

The framework is flexible and should include evidencing data on outputs and outcomes, the different views and reported outcomes from all stakeholders, costs and reported benefits and targets.  The subsequent reporting brings together quantitative and qualitative information – including an internal report on the organisation’s approach and ethos.  It then discloses this independently audited information and invites the wider society to assess its success or failure.

Adopting the framework is not rocket science.  We think that it is a sensible approach to showing others an organisation’s progress (how it proves itself) and this then relays back into how it can improve as an effective organisation.  The verified report highlights and recommends new directions, changes, improvements; and all this can be fed into planning for the future.

By its nature, the recommended structure for a ‘social report’ encourages a range of data from different sources and goes beyond Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – and such like. Indeed, a note of caution should be attached to ‘targets’ and KPIs.  We have found that targets are really useful if they are presented alongside other information.  But if they become the ‘report’, the focus moves away from overall improvements in quality to changing the actions to fulfil the target.

In essence, regular social reporting is crucially important – particularly for organisations whose social and community benefits are its raison d’etre.  Through this reporting, they can assess the degree of success (or failure) they are having in different areas of their work.

The success parameters applied by an organisation are multi-perspective and set by the organisation – but crucially these parameters are then tested by subjecting the social report to an independent audit

Subsequent systematic social reporting can then track the progress of an organisation, and in looking critically at that story people in the wider society, can assess themselves on the success or failure of that social enterprise.

So, going back to the wider anecdotes at the start of this blog… Success can be defined in different ways depending on values, the experience and the understanding of those trying to assess ‘success’.

Lastly, and perhaps as an addendum, we should not perhaps ignore the importance of failure.  I leave you with a quote from Kenneth Boulding (1910 – 1993), a British economist, educator, peace activist, poet, religious mystic, devoted Quaker, systems scientist, and interdisciplinary philosopher who wrote:

“Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it.  We only learn from failure.”

Mmm…

Postscript: In 2005 John Pearce wrote Learning from Failure which focussed on four social enterprises that had failed.  He wrote about why and how they failed and the lessons to be learnt from their experience. It was published by Co-active which I believe no longer exists.  If you would like a copy, write to alan.kay20@gmail.com.

Alan Kay – Social Audit Network (SAN)

www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Social impact and going beyond the potholes of ‘democracy’…

It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.  Winston Churchill

The quote above is often used by many who find the whole idea of democracy becoming more and more perplexing.   What is it?  Why is it a method of governance that we should follow?  Are we aware of the dangers of swallowing it whole?

Was Churchill alluding to some of the contradictions inherent in the democratic process?

In 2014, we allowed the democratic will of the people in Scotland to decide on whether or not to become independent from the rest of the UK.  Despite a negative vote – 55% to 45% – the result fuelled a nationalist drive which, even now, seems to be constantly simmering just below the political consciousness.  It was followed by a general election in 2015 where the electoral seats won by the Scottish National Party (SNP) was 56.  This was against only 3 seats won by all the other parties put together, although the SNP polled under half of those that voted.  Funny thing, this democracy…

Then, in 2016, we had a UK referendum on staying or leaving the European Union.  To most people’s surprise the Brexiteers won forcing a new government to lead a messy withdrawal from Europe.  This was based on only 52% wanting out of the EU and 48% wanting to stay in.  A small margin, but the majority of voters wins for absolute change and a change that will affect generations to come.

In the USA Donald Trump’s election was even more bizarre as he managed to become president with only 46% of the popular vote when his rival, Hilary Clinton had 48%.

So what is going on? I am going to argue that we should not idealise ‘democracy’ as it possesses a number of faults or contradictions.  So here goes with nine contradictions or potholes to consider.

  1. Democracy is often dependent on a geographical area where the inhabitants have the right to vote. A person who is chosen to represent that area is elected by a majority of the people living within specified boundaries.  However, it depends on the definition of that area and where the borders have been drawn.
  2. There is often the problem of access to a vote amongst the electorate. Many people are excluded from the electoral roll, some choose to be.  The roll may be out of date or there may be a transient population.  The electorate is not always a true representation of the people who live in the area.
  3. There are lots of people who appear on the electoral register who do not vote. Some countries make it compulsory to vote but most do not. So we follow the will of only those that actually vote.
  4. There is a belief that voters elect someone to represent their wishes and desires at a higher level of government. In most democratic countries, this does not happen as prospective candidates usually align themselves with a particular party or grouping.  Political parties have policies which reflect the party’s values. This is all very well but local issues tend to get lost in the expedience of party interests.
  5. There are differing democratic systems to consider. In the UK general elections, we have a first-past-the-post system which has the advantage of giving a clear result where only slight swings in opinion from one political party to another can result in clear parliamentary majorities.  It has the disadvantage of not being a true reflection of the feelings of the whole of the electorate.   An alternative is proportional representation where seats in government, generally speaking, are divided according to the numbers of people who have voted for particular parties.  On the surface this appears to be fairer but in countries where this system is in place it usually results in an over-abundance of parties and the minor parties tend to have a disproportionate amount of influence in government as they hold sway on tricky or closely divided issues.
  6. There is a belief that those politicians that have been democratically elected, actually govern. In established democracies, there are often other governing bodies.  In the UK, the civil service, with its hierarchy and powerful mandarins, unelected persons can influence the decisions that emerge from the well-trodden corridors of power.  Similarly, people are often appointed by those who possess power into positions of authority that can dictate their decisions to the mass of the population.
  7. There is a danger of forming a dictatorship of the majority where the minority’s wishes are over-ridden by politicians elected by slim margins. They then push for major societal changes that do not take account of the wishes of all the people.
  8. Democracy is not inherently fair or inclusive. Within a democracy single-minded people can form pressure groups to lobby government and political parties trying to influence the debate if not the outcome on particular issues. Resources can be used to by private companies and others to disproportionately influence policy.   Money talks and those that have it recognise this completely and use their money to influence decisions or policies.
  9. Under multi-party democracy there is always a fight for the middle-ground. The battle over the centre of the political landscape in the UK is all very well – but is there any real choice left with previously principled parties sacrificing their values to gain power by attracting the middle ground?

This brings us to the question of relevancy.  Is parliamentary politics relevant to the average person whether “in the street” or aboard the No 29 bus to Auchtermuchty?

In theory it certainly is relevant and can affect the lives of all the citizens but in practice people only want to get on with their lot and barely see the importance of party politics.  On the other hand, organisations want to know that they are operating ‘democratically’ and in a way that reflects some form of social equity or social justice.

And what about social impact?

Community-based enterprises and local organisations serving the communities they are located in have tried to demonstrate their democratic credentials by counting how many people came to their AGM; how many members they have – regardless of how active they were; and the level of engagement by local people.  This all adds up to something that goes beyond casting votes and looking at majority margins.

Organisations who apply social accounting and audit as a process to monitor and evaluate an organisation’s effectiveness and ‘social impact’, have used all the above factors in describing their links to their constituents.  They go beyond counting votes and look at local involvement, opportunities where local people can engage with others and develop connections.

It can be argued that democracy works best at a local level where there are much clearer channels of accountability between an organisation and the community residents. Perhaps organisations have to get closer to communities and people, allowing them the chance to take more control over their own destiny.  This might be through more active community politics with more decisions devolved to local people.

So Churchill is right, I think, in recognising democracy is ‘the worst form of government’.  What we need to try is more local involvement and community development, not focussed on ‘democracy’ as an ideal, but rather on social and economic justice.

Alan Kay, Social Audit Network (SANwww.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

democracy

  • government by the people or their elected representatives
  • a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members
  • the practice of spirit of social equality
  • a social condition of classlessness and equality

Collins Concise English Dictionary (2012)

Are social enterprises creating white elephants?

Legend has it that the King of Siam once gave rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.

These days, the term ‘white elephant’ more often refers to an extravagant but useless gift that cannot be easily disposed of or serves little purpose, or perhaps a beautiful but functionless building that nobody visits….

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a conference for social enterprise organisations. I work in local government, so I talked about how commissioners of public services are increasingly looking for the ‘social value’ which a business in the social economy might bring. I was followed by three speakers from the private sector, all of whom had committed to ‘buy social’ and include social enterprises in their supply chains.

A group of local social enterprises spoke about their good work and the social impact that they were creating through activities ranging from support for people with mental health problems, disabled young people being able to visit the beach, to training for families to eat healthily and take more exercise.

All valuable and necessary goals in local communities.

After the conference, one of my private sector colleagues confided in me that he was struggling to purchase from social enterprises because they just didn’t sell the things that his company needed to buy…

And I thought about my own experience of public sector commissioning and how few of our contracts are placed directly with social enterprises (despite my employer having put a great deal of effort into trying to do so).

So, what is going wrong? Why are some social enterprises more successful than others?

Although the private and public sectors often want to buy goods and services from organisations with a social purpose, perhaps they can’t directly buy the social value or social impact that those organisations are keen to sell? Buyers want to purchase a product and get the social value ‘added’?

Maybe the social enterprises that ARE successful have found a way to sell products which by their very nature create social impact? Maybe they understand their market as well as their social value?

NMC Design and Print is an enterprise linked to the Neuro Muscular Centre in Winsford, Cheshire. NMC has used its social accounting http://www.nmcentre.com/nmc/about-us/social-accounts/ to engage with its market and create a commercially successful social enterprise providing a Design and Print service run by, and employing, designers with muscular dystrophy.

The products that they are selling include graphic design, other digital services and printing. The ‘social value’ comes with the fact that people with muscular dystrophy, who would otherwise struggle to find employment, provide these services.

NMC knows and engages with its market, understands its social value and has expanded rapidly.

See Detail is a company that makes the best use of the skills of the staff to provide services that are exceptional and rewarding for everyone.  In addition, they provide autism awareness training to the companies and organisations that they work with, and finally they are lifting people out of the, so-called benefits trap, and making a real contribution to society both in terms of wealth generation and in innovation and creativity.  See Detail’s main business is software testing  which people on the autistic spectrum are ideally suited.

Both NMC Design and Print and See Detail have managed to combine their business model and their social impact to create a commercially successful social enterprise. They have ‘packaged’ their social value for their own specific market. Sadly, many ‘social enterprises’ that I come across have not managed to do that.

Instead, social value dominates their purpose. This might be too specific or on too small a scale to be beneficial to prospective customers and the ‘enterprise’ ceases to be viable. A ‘beast’ is created which is valuable to a discrete group and often outwardly impressive but which is impossible to sustain and not really wanted by those with the means to pay for it.

So, my ‘take-away’ messages to social enterprises everywhere are;

  • don’t create white elephants, when dull looking, grey beasts are often stronger and more successful;
  • use tools like social accounting and audit to engage with your market, and
  • be very careful in the presence of Kings….

Anne Lythgoe

SAN Vice- Chair

What is the role of funders in social impact matters?

He who pays the piper calls the tune.  Old British saying

Explanation in Cambridge Dictionary: the saying is said to emphasise that the person who is paying someone to do something can decide how it should be done…

This above saying is widely used and often in connection with funders and investors – those that provide funds to enable social economy organisations to get on and do things that have social or community benefit.

There is a fine dividing line between those that provide the financial resources and those organisations that carry out the work.  How much right have funders in dictating what the work should be, who should do it, how it should be done and how should the benefits be reported back?  It is not an easy and straightforward relationship, as often the funders are not always fully aware of the context, do not always understand the difficulties in the delivery of services, and, at times, can get overly involved in how the delivery organisation is managed and how it reports.

At times those that provide the money can over step the mark.  I used to work with overseas aid organisations and UK Government departments that provided much of the funding in the 1980s and they used to dictate to the aid organisations which consultants they should use, what suppliers they should buy from and so on.  In a benign way, this may have been meant to be helpful; but at worst it could be seen as interfering and dictatorial.

In the distant past when I worked for a community enterprise support organisation in Scotland we received a grant from the local council.  Each year we were expected to report on how the money had been spent.  They trusted us to deliver beneficial impacts arising from how the money had been used.

Over the past ten years the situation has changed dramatically.  Organisations in receipt of funding are now asked to provide proof of the positive differences that they have made – and, on top of this, the funders themselves are increasingly getting involved in how an organisation reports on its social and community impact.  This may be very positive but I feel it is important to understand that there is now a shift in the relationship between funders and the recipients – and that this shift may not be entirely positive.

It comes down to who actually is guiding the social and community change.  Should it be funders with often limited staff most of whom have distribution and monitoring roles?  Or should it be the delivery organisations who know the social and community needs, the local situations and the way needs can be addressed?

As the UK currently appears to be turning its back on Europe and aping the culture and traditions of the United States, we are placing more emphasis on philanthropy as a substitute for state funding – especially in areas of social and community change.  Personally, I feel this is a very worrying trend as economically successful individuals are now resorting to use the profit they have gained from neoliberal business practices in doing ‘good’.  Often, they will want to give ‘something back’ through redistribution to those less well-off.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the nature of the relationship between the philanthropic funder and the recipient requires more open understanding.

There are a number of factors that can considered in understanding this relationship:

  • funders often want to fund organisations that are familiar to them in what they do, and how they practice
  • funders are sometimes remote from the sharp end of delivery. What do they really know of juggling social and business objectives, of having to lay people off, of struggling to make ends meet?
  • funders will often talk of working in partnership. But is it really a partnership when one partner wields financial power over another
  • when it comes to reporting back on the difference made by the recipients of the funds are we really reporting on the ‘right’ things and the real change that has happened or just on a bunch of targets

So now turning to social impact.  In the Social Audit Network we believe that the monitoring and evaluation process should be owned and controlled by the organisation. Without doubt, the recipient of funds should report back to a funder on what has been done with the money and what difference has occurred – but the control of the evaluation should be empowering the organisation and not undermining it by funders pushing for only their agenda to be addressed.

We argue that accounting for social and community change is an integral part of what a social economy organisation should be doing.  And perhaps more controversially, we feel that funders are just one of a number of stakeholder groups that have to be reported to… They are often highly influential stakeholders but should not be dominant.

Another important element to reporting on social impact, is that mechanistic and highly structured impact reporting can miss the point.

I read an article from Australia recently called The politics of social impact: ‘value for money’ versus ‘active citizenship.  The author, Jenny Onyx, argues that we can get too bogged down in filling out output, outcome and impact boxes that we miss the point of how a community-based organisation can have a wider impact on local and active citizenship – with all the socialistic, caring, roles and responsibilities attached to that….

So, having said all this – what’s to be done?  I met a representative from a large funding organisation in Scotland recently.  They stressed listening, partnership, exchange, trust, openness…and I agreed with them.  But the relationship is often precarious – but here goes with some suggestions:

  • trust is often quoted glibly but it is crucially important as the basis between a funder and a recipient. The thing about trust is that it takes time and shared experience to build up and, unfortunately, can be broken easily and suddenly;
  • linked to trust is for both parties to adopt a more enlightened attitude to failure. If funders recognised and accepted failure, more risks can be taken, new things tried, and importantly learning can result from failed attempts;
  • if possible, funders should be less prescriptive in how an organisation reports on the difference it is making. Of course, some parameters need to be set down and agreed but the contextual situation should be understood fully by both parties;
  • there is also an issue over size and familiarity. Generally, those providing funds want to deal with larger organisations with recognisable ‘business’ systems and procedures.  This is often to the exclusion of smaller organisations.  This tension around ‘size’ will not go away especially when neoliberal economic systems measure success by how much entities have ‘grown’.  There may be a way of getting round this – but I am not sure what it is…

Finally, and to go back to the quote at the beginning – arguably ‘he’ in the saying should learn from social economy organisations how to play the pipes and learn the tune before putting his hand in the funding pocket…

Alan Kay Social Audit Network (SAN)

www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Social impact: the use of language and why it matters…

In this world of a Trump election in the USA and Brexit in the UK – where facts and ‘truth’ are being stretched to a frightening degree, I am reminded of George Orwell and his concept of doublethink.  He writes…

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history. (George Orwell, 1984)

This idea of words and language being used to manipulate thinking is at the heart of Orwell’s work.  He recognised that language and words are crucially important.

As we enter a world of post-truth and increasingly instantaneous information and communication, we are going to have to be more scrupulous in filtering out fact from a tidal flood of fiction which has been designed to influence the way we think.

Of course, language can be used to explain and clarify things.  The late James Cameron in an article in the Guardian in the 1980s wrote about how he did not really know or understand his opinion on things until he had tried to express it in words.  He relates how he became surprised at the opinions – often strong opinions – that he held which only really come to light when he put his thoughts into words.

This resonated with me at that time – and it still does – as it reveals the strong link between our culture – the way we think about things in the world, and the language we use to explain it to ourselves and to others.

But language can also be used to confuse and obfuscate the truth intended in the meaning.

Often there is a difference between what people say they are doing and what they are actually doing. This lack of a clear link with reality may just the absence of clear thinking, but it may be deliberate to manipulate how others think about things and what they do about it.

In the world of social enterprise, words are used in ways that intend to influence.  Indeed, the term ‘social enterprise’ originated from the French, ‘economie sociale’, and its early use was not to explain the impact of economic activity in ‘social’ ways or in benefitting people.  Rather the term was used to explain that the economic activity was owned by people.  For me this is an interesting distinction, and one that is often forgotten.  But, of course, the term has evolved from its roots into what we understand ‘social enterprise’ to mean today, that is, the impact on people.

Another example from the history of social enterprise…

A precursor to social enterprise in the UK was the Scottish community business movement that started in the 1970s with rural community co-operatives supported by the then Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highland and Islands Enterprise).

The idea of community ownership of economic activity spread to urban areas with community-owned businesses supported by local authorities using Urban Programme funding. This movement flourished, became established and mainstream. In the early 1990s it came in for a lot of criticism (some of it quite valid) but this led to people changing the terminology – if not the concept.  They started to refer to these types of organisations as ‘community enterprises’.  Not the old guard, ‘community business’, but the fresh and new, ‘community enterprise’.

Similarly, in the early 1990s a range of versions of community-owned businesses emerged.  In my view, they were more-or-less the same thing but with a new twist: ‘development trusts’, ‘social firms’ – to name but two.  Old wine in new bottles.  The newly formed terms implied a new concept.

Turning to the world of ‘social impact’ there are similar things happening.

I have been actively involved in ‘social accounting and audit’ for many years.  We started to use this term in the early 2000s replacing ‘social audit’ as we felt the longer term more accurately described the two parts of ‘social accounting’ and ‘social audit’.  As you can imagine it is not a particularly popular term and we thought of changing it into something more immediately appealing like, ‘SEE Visioning’ or similar.

It was thought that a change of name might attract those that associated ‘accounting’ and ‘audit’ with arduous and stressful connotations.  For better or for worse we stuck with the accuracy of ‘social accounting and audit’.  You get what is says on the tin…

More recently I have become aware of a subtle change of word usage in the social impact field.

A few years ago, the term ‘impact measurement’ was on everyone’s lips.  We were being encouraged to ‘measure’ the change that happens on people, the environment and on the local economies.  If we could not, the argument was that the impact could not be managed – or so we were told.

The Social Audit Network has always disputed this and said that just because one cannot measure something, one can still put a value on it.  In fact, many of the things that most people personally would value in their lives, cannot be measured – like love, close friendship, the warmth of company, the delight in a beautiful view, the exhilaration of achievement, and so on.  Others in this area of social impact insisted that ‘measurement’ was key.

Inevitably, those that insisted on measuring things and often reducing the good things in life to a financial value are now recognising that they may have been wrong.  But instead of accepting that – yes, you are right – they change the words.  ‘Impact management’ has been introduced.  Recognising the absurdities of trying to measuring everything, which one cannot sensibly do, let’s change it to managing and understanding our impact.

Perhaps what is not so strange is that those advocating ‘impact management’ now are not a million miles away from what ‘social accounting and audit’ has been suggesting for decades.

So the use of language may just be a minor skirmish within the social impact.  But it is arguably a reflection of something much more important – that is, the way we use language and what we really mean.

I can see that in a future more nationalist, more fearful, more defensive and exclusive world, the connection between language and ‘truth’ will become more divergent.

The writing of Orwell will no doubt come back to haunt (or is it taunt us?).  In his work, ‘Politics and the English Language’, he writes…

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

I am not sure what a cuttlefish is, but there seems to be a lot of them about.

Alan Kay

Social Audit Network (SAN) www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

A Flexible Approach to Reporting on Social Impact

In the last 10 years or so, numerous organisations have been set up to provide toolkits and offer support and advice on producing social impact reports.  The Social Value Act (SVA) 2012 was like an injection of steroids into the sector and we now probably have more organisations offering consultancy and information than we can usefully make sense of.

For many organisations seeking to report on their social purpose there is now a bewildering array of options to choose from – making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. The SVA and recent procurement policy guidance requires organisations to demonstrate their social value as well as reporting on their financial capability.

What many people probably don’t realize is that the antecedents for reporting on social value and social impact stretch back to the 1970s when the term ‘social audit’ was first used. Social Audit Limited was a company formed at that time to consider using ‘social audit’ to outline the effects of large factory closure on local communities.

‘Social auditing’ was then further developed by Freer Spreckley and his pioneering work with Beechwood College in Yorkshire in the 1980s, producing the first social audit toolkit.  In the late 1980s the Community Business Movement in Scotland extended this work to community enterprises – John Pearce and Alan Kay amongst the prime movers in this work – leading to the establishment of the Social Audit Network (SAN).

The 1980s was Thatcher’s decade, and the idea of demonstrating social value was counter to the strict Conservative Party policy of financialising pretty much everything.  A great deal of experimental work was carried out in Scotland between 1980 and 2003 when the Social Audit Network was officially launched; seeking to demonstrate that it isn’t just money that matters.

I recently attended the Social Value UK (SVUK) Members Exchange meeting in Birmingham (November 2016), where there were representatives from practitioner and social impact reporting services organisations.

I participated in a round table discussion of about 12 people at the meeting exploring how the information produced for the quality assurance and management of organisations could be integrated into social impact reports.

We know that some community and social enterprises already provide data to meet the requirements of quality assurance/management bodies such as PQASSO, European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM), Investors in People & the Matrix Standard. A number of them use the SAN Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) framework and included this data into their social accounts.

We also know that some organisations using the SAN framework include Social Return on Investment (SROI) type analysis on some part of their activities  – most notably Birmingham Council of Voluntary Organisations (BCVO), All Saints Action Network (ASAN) in Wolverhampton and Five Lamps in the North East and Yorkshire.

There were probably as many consultants as practitioners at the Members Exchange meeting, and that left me wondering whether practitioners – particularly those that SAN has traditionally represented, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises – are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information available to report on social impact and confused about which approach would best suit their needs.

In terms of finding a suitable approach to reporting on social value and impact, it seems to me that there are a few fundamental questions to ask;

  • What is the purpose of producing a social impact report?
  • Who is going to see it and what use can they make of it?
  • Does it need to be complex or could it be done relatively simply?
  • What detail is needed to satisfy the stakeholders?

Organisations that use SAN’s social accounting and audit framework like the flexibility to include an array of different tools in their reporting. They can draw on existing quality assurance/ management information AND include a SROI element to dig deeper into financial returns if they choose to.

The point is that the SAN SAA framework offers the flexibility to use different tools and data in the reporting of both performance and impact. 

Additionally, SAN uniquely has a network of accredited social auditors who can be contracted to audit the social accounts. At a time when demonstrating social value is becoming an increasingly necessary requirement, the independent auditing of the accounts is a vital component of verifying the authenticity and validity of the information, provided in much the same way as financial auditors do with financial accounts.

Sean Smith, SAN Director and West Midlands Regional Coordinator www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk