Tag Archives: outcomes

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

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 reporting and marketing: a hazy divide?

“Marketing is manipulation and deceit. It tries to turn people into something they aren’t – individuals focused solely on themselves, maximising their consumption of goods that they don’t need.” Noam Chomsky

It is a powerful quote from Chomsky and not one that I entirely agree with as I feel that businesses have to promote and sell their products in the competitive environment which is part of our prevailing economic system.

The whole idea of marketing reminds me of a time I was wisely told by a colleague that there is often a difference between what people say they are doing and what they are actually doing.  This brings me to the main thread running through this blog which is the relationship between ‘marketing’ and ‘social impact reporting’.

In some ways it comes back to why should social and community enterprises regularly report on their performance and their impact on people, the environment and on the society in which they exist.  They do not have to.  So why do they?

Often social enterprises will say they are doing it in order to market what they do and to be able promote and ‘sell’ what they can provide – ‘selling’ it to investors or funders and other stakeholders.  This is quite legitimate and to be applauded but I would argue should not be the sole reason to report on social impact.

The last few decades have shown a huge and pervading expansion and emphasis on ‘marketing’.  Entrepreneurs starting out or wanting to expand will come up with a ‘product’ and then spend an inordinate amount of time, resources and energy to try and sell that product in the market.  Arguably, organisations with a central social objective should by definition not need to spend as much on this, as they should be responding to a social need and through their activities provide for that need to those that benefit from their work.

The area where social impact reporting and marketing meets manifests itself in Corporate Social Responsibility (CRS) reporting.  It is admirable and to be encouraged that businesses report more holistically and include the positive impact that they are having on the environment, on people and on the wider culture.  But this is basically philanthropy.  Their core business, if you like, is to maximise profit for their owners or founders.  They also have wider impacts but they remain secondary to their core purpose.

Social enterprises, on the other hand should be reporting regularly on their core business with is positive social change.  Social enterprises should be assessed and judged on how well they are achieving their central purpose and the impact they are having.

Social impact reporting should not only be used for marketing but also to contribute to planning, to the management of the whole organisations, to review what has worked and what has not, to understanding priorities, to involve processes that listen to stakeholders, to understand costs and outcomes of differing strategies, and so on.  It is about reporting and accounting and not just a way of providing marketing information.

Social Accounting and Audit takes organisations through a process that asks for a regular review of the mission, values and objectives alongside an analysis of stakeholders (all those individuals and organisations that can affect an organisation and are affected by it).  It requires an ‘impact map’ identifying outputs and outcomes to emerge from the activities of an organisation.  This is followed by collection of quantitative and qualitative data that is brought together in an annual set of draft social accounts.  The social accounts should seek to accurately reflect the performance and impact of the organisation during the past year.  This ‘account’ then is subject to an independent audit and the revised draft becomes the social report.  The process runs parallel to the financial accounting and audit process.

A social report for social and community enterprises is about proving what your organisation has achieved – backing up the claims with evidence; improving as an organisation as inevitably decisions on the future will be based around hard facts; and finally, and this is of increasing importance, about being accountable to all stakeholders.

It is important to recognise that the audit checks the thoroughness and veracity of reporting and does not pass judgement.  The judgement about performance and impact is left to stakeholders and the report should be openly disclosed to them.  They then make a judgement about the organisation.

Some organisations going through regular social accounting and audit consider the final report as of huge importance.  I would argue that going through the process is equally important.

It would be a mistake to think of social impact reporting only in terms of how it can be used to market the organisation.

The quote from Chomsky at the start of this blog reflects the cynicism around marketing – claiming that it is only about businesses trying to persuading people to spend their money.

Social and community enterprises are more about responsibly and regularly reporting on how they have effected change that contributes to benefits for people and the wider society.   In social reporting what an organisation says it does should be as close as possible to what it actually does.

Telling people about what an organisation does is one thing; but doing this in order to sell more and more products and services is another…

…and never the twain should meet…

Alan Kay

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

Measuring social impact ‘is like quicksilver in the hand’

I was at a conference recently about the future of Volunteering where discussion arose about how to measure its impact. Representatives from volunteering organisers complained about the problem of commissioners expecting longitudinal measurement of the social impact of volunteering, when this is something that varies and changes on a day to day basis. This made me think of Dorothy Parker’s quote about quicksilver.  ‘Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away’.

I learned that most people, especially the young, volunteer for a short period of time, or just for a one-off event. Tracking the difference that this has made for them and for society is nigh on impossible. (…and certainly would involve a huge amount of effort).

So if commissioners need to know the difference that something as ever-changing as volunteering is making, can this really be done? Should we clutch the quicksilver and try to make it fit into a box of metrics, or leave the hand open and watch it change?

The whole problem of tracking change over a long period of time is not being addressed by most social impact measurement approaches, which take a ‘snap shot’ or try to clutch at the truth of the impact (not always capturing the true picture and certainly not understanding it in the medium to long term…)

So I have two suggestions – one for the volunteering organisers and a follow-up for commissioners;

Organisers – look to the use of social accounting and audit, which at least tries to track social impact over time due to the regularity of the process… Use a repeated and robust measurement system as part of your daily business, and keep it there.

Commissioners – would you accept the ‘passporting’ of evidence about social impact. or learning from evaluation between projects if there was a robust social accounting system in place? Rather than expecting measurement in minute detail for a provider to receive payment, would you be happy if observed and assumed impact/outcomes could be shown in the longer term through independently verified social accounts?

Dorothy Parker’s original quote was about Love. I also learned that people volunteer because they care about something! Let’s not put them off by stifling this caring with form-filling and over-zealous counting of what they do.

Anne Lythgoe is Manager of Policy and Partnerships at Salford City Council and is supporting a partnership between the public and VCSE sectors in the City and Greater Manchester. More information can be found at www.salfordsocialvalue.org..uk

Anne is also a Director of the Social Audit Network. www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

Twitter: @anne_lythgoe