Tag Archives: social accounts

Developing Devolution with Social Accounting & Audit

I believe that Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) can be a framework for accountability and reporting, which, if used to support public procurement, will enable devolution. Despite the current move towards greater control of purchasing by central government in Westminster, SAA can be a way to make devolution work.

Devolution is commonly understood to be the transfer of functions previously exercised by ministers and the national parliament to a subordinate elected body on a geographical basis.

In Greater Manchester (GM), we have been leading the way. Budgets for health and social care, planning and housing, business support and low carbon technologies have been entrusted to sub-regional level by Government.

Furthermore, ‘social value’ is now enshrined in GM-wide Procurement Policy, and the need to maximise spending power for the benefit of local people – to achieve a social, environmental and economic impact – is recognised as a major way to ‘sweat’ public, private and third sector investment for the common good.

Over 10 years ago, at the New Local Government conference, David Milliband announced, ‘at the local level we need a stronger framework of opportunity and responsibility …. – in fact a double devolution, not just to the Town Hall but beyond, to neighbourhoods and individual citizens’.

The Office of the Third Sector (now Civil Society) was created and local authorities were encouraged to devolve the delivery of local services to local people.

But it didn’t quite happen like that…

What we have in GM isn’t a ‘double devolution’, but it is one where the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector has a strong voice. Words like ‘co-production’, ‘co-design’, ‘asset based approaches’ and ‘reform’ are used to indicate an evolving sense of, ‘we are all in it together’. The delivery isn’t yet devolved to local people.

At the heart of GM devolution is a need to make the local economy sustainable. It is recognised that if this is to work, voluntary, community, social enterprise organisations, neighbourhoods and citizens must be ready and able to take the opportunity and responsibility.  And they must convince Town Halls that they can deliver. Maybe therefore, this is why the double devolution hasn’t really happened?

SAA is not a new concept, having been implemented in various forms and by a wide range of organisations since the 1970s.  But there is a growing number of organisations in GM that have adopted this approach to help them measure their overall impact and quality by integrating the ‘proving – improving – and be accountable’ processes into their day-to-day operations.

SAA accurately describes what an organisation is achieving in economic, social and environmental terms, and allows it to demonstrate to others what its principle purposes are and what it does. It assesses social and community enterprises in a holistic way, incorporating both the views of everyone connected with the organisation and measuring indicators of its success.

The framework also includes independent verification, an audit process whereby the results can be proved to be robust and reliable, which can give confidence to both the organisation and the Town Hall looking to devolve responsibility or place a contract.

One of the main elements of SAA is the comprehensive involvement of an organisation’s stakeholders, and this can prove one of the most important reasons for procuring from the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector.  SAA can demonstrate to health and other commissioners that service users and staff are indeed involved in the planning, operation and management of services from social enterprises.

Unlimited Potential (UP) is a social enterprise providing health and happiness services, which grew up in the Charlestown and Lower Kersal area of Salford.

ultd-potential

Formed by residents participating in a local health task group, and now tackling health issues in partnership with local people, its work includes managing services at two local healthy living centres, health outreach services and work which addresses the specific health and happiness issues of local residents.

UP is very keen to prove its ‘positive impact’ as it develops a sustainable business strategy, and has used social accounting and audit to do this.

UP’s ability to demonstrate the benefits of its work through social accounting and audit, adds ‘value’ to public service commissioners who are provided with evidence of partnership working, involvement of local people in the design and management of services, innovation, responsiveness to local need and local ownership. This has contributed to UP becoming a nationally recognised and respected social enterprise.

SAA can be used to demonstrate individual and collective strengths, prove the sector’s competence as providers of public services, and meeting the challenge of taking local responsibility and citizen led action.

It can help devolution to happen.

Anne Lythgoe, Vice Chair & Treasurer/Finance Director  www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

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Social impact and our peculiar understanding of ‘community’…

Many social enterprises, and perhaps more accurately, community enterprises, say that they are having an impact on The Community.  But do we really understand what we mean when we talk about ‘community’?

I have been involved with a number of EU funded projects over the years and conversations with European partners turns to semantics and discussion on whether or not there is a shared understanding of some of the major concepts that we in the UK bandy about with abandon.

One of those, and one that often forms a bit of a stumbling block, is the word ‘community’.  The Germans say it is untranslatable; the French use it in other ways; the British say it all the time in the hope that the others get their meaning.

Turning to definitions, the Oxford Living Dictionaries states that it is, ‘a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’, which implies a ‘geographical community’.  But it also goes on to say that community can be, ‘the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common’.  This suggests more of a ‘community of interest’.

These discussions remind me of when I worked with community businesses in Scotland in the late 1980s.  Talking about a geographical community made sense as local people in hard pressed areas got together, formed an enterprise that created benefits for the locality by providing employment for long term unemployed and much needed services to benefit residents in the area.

But then ‘community of interest’ emerged.   This broadened the definition and at one meeting we realised that a golf club could be a community business serving the ‘community of golfers’.  Was this right?  And so the argument continued within, in those days, a smoke-filled room of activists…

Added to this are two critical dilemmas worthy of consideration.

The first is that ‘community’ is not a homogenous unit.  Within a geographical area there are a range of different people with differing values, outlooks, social and economic status, faiths and ethnic groupings.  How do we, as community-based organisations, whose central purpose is to work for community benefit, serve the whole community?

What are the priorities; how are they decided; and so on?   Local people on a Board of a community enterprise would be expected to understand the local community better than an outsider – but they may have their own interests and views that may not address the problem of all people living and working in the community.

The second is how the geographical community is defined.  Where are the boundaries outlining the community?   For some communities this is relatively straightforward as they may be islands, or particularly remote and self-defining, or they may be a housing estate squeezed into an area bounded by a major road or railway line.  But for many community based organisations this is an issue and one that has to be tackled and re-addressed.

Many community enterprises over the years have tried to report on the impact that they have on their community.  If they keep social accounts they are expected to draw out a local stakeholder map that charts the nature of the relationship they have with different stakeholder groups.

This is an exercise that many find particularly useful as it exposes many in their organisation to the dilemmas mentioned above.  Often there is not total agreement, but the discussion over stakeholder relationships can create a better understanding of differing positions within and around the organisation.

Also, as part of social accounting, there would be a need to consult or engage with the ‘community’ – some refer it to as the ‘wider community’.  This presents a problem as the community may be made up of thousands of households.  Through my involvement with social accounting and audit, I have tried to do and suggest a number of things.

One time we worked with a community enterprise in carrying out a survey that involved a questionnaire going to each household distributed in a community newsletter.  The returns were few.

Another time we worked on visiting a random selection of households in an area and conducted interviews.  This was more successful but fraught with difficulties over people being out, not wanting callers, not to mention fatigue and a wearing down of shoe leather…

However, something that did seem to work well, was the creation of a kind of ‘community jury’.  The community enterprise identified a local councillor for the area; a head of school, a local social worker, a prominent business person, a faith leader, a local MP.  These were people who were not close stakeholders but who would know about the community enterprise and a little about its work and impact.

Ideally this group would be brought together and issues about the performance and impact of the community enterprise would be discussed.  In practice this was very hard to achieve and the fall-back position was to interview these people with the same questions.

The consultation and engagement with a ‘community of interest’ may be clearer in some ways, as the community enterprise may only be consulting those people that have expressed an interest in what the enterprise is trying to do.  But that leaves out all the people that could be in the community of interest but do not know about or have never used the services provided.  Difficult or what?

I think defining and understanding ‘community’ is crucially important.  At a meeting several years ago a prominent member of the social enterprise sector in Scotland was asked what he thought was the future of social enterprise.  He said he thought it would be ‘community based enterprise’.  This harks back to the burgeoning community business movement in Scotland in the 1980s – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I also think that community enterprises are going to be more and more important.They tend to be tenacious organisations due to their close connections within communities.  This is evidenced by the number of community co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands that are still around in one form or another.

Community enterprises are also like ‘anchor organisations’ – a conduit for local development.  They usually have a clearer purpose compared to the plethora of recent social enterprises that are currently emerging – which are not community-based and struggle to show their distinction from being traditional businesses with a philanthropic arm.

Finally, we all live in ‘communities’ in one form or another.  We are not only individuals but part of something that underlines the connections and relationships between us that make life worthwhile.  I leave you with a quote from Cesar Chavez (1927 – 1993), an American labour leader and civil rights activist…

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.

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

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)

www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk

The importance of social capital and its link to social accounting…

I have worked with a wide range of social and community enterprises over the years and I am becoming increasingly convinced that an understanding of social capital can help significantly in accounting for how a social enterprise has an impact on its stakeholders and wider community.

I must admit that I was sceptical about the notion of social capital when I first came across it back in the late 1990s.  But the more I found out about it, the more it appeared to make sense and nowadays I see social capital in all relationships between people, between organisations and between people and organisations.

The main refuge for social capital seems to be in the world of academia which abounds with articles and learned papers about what it is and how it works.  This theoretical analysis has not really been adequately translated into practice.  Arguably it should be, as I believe social capital can be useful in understanding community development, business relations, health and well-being and urban and rural regeneration.

In trying to get to grips with the concept of social capital, it may be useful to consider it within an historical context – albeit an overly simplified one…

Back in the 1960s there was a belief that communities could be developed through improving housing and the physical environment. In the 1970s emphasis was laid on instigating social change through the provision of what were called ‘basic needs’.  The focus in the 1980s was much more on helping people with developing their skills that would enable them to get a job – or a better paid job.  In the 1990s there were an increasing number of community initiatives that tried to mobilise groups encouraging community capacity building.  Linked to this was a recognition that organisational development can contribute significantly to community change.  More recently there was been more emphasis on social and community cohesion and this is where social capital plays a major role.

So what is this thing called social capital?

Back in the 2000s I wrote a chapter in John Pearce’s Social Enterprise in Anytown and described social capital as being ‘that intangible “something” that exists between individuals and organisations within a community; the connections and trusting contacts that people make while going about their daily business’.

Following the work of the CONSCISE Project and work since, six elements to social capital have been identified and these fall into three categories:

  • Trust, social networks and reciprocity/mutuality are about the relationships between individuals and organisations;
  • Shared norms of behaviour (values) and shared commitment and belonging are about more than one individual and/or organisation sharing values and sharing a way of thinking
  • Effective information channels permit individuals and organisations to access information from outside and within the community

This can be summarised diagrammatically…

soc capital diagram

So how does all this work in the context of a community enterprise keeping social accounts and compiling a social report?  (In this blog I shall use the term ‘community enterprise’ but much of what is said can equally apply to ‘social enterprise’ and voluntary organisations, and so on.)

One way is to carry out what we called a ‘stocktake’.  This assesses whether or not a community enterprise is committing itself to a social capital approach.  The Social Capital Stocktake is a tool that any social enterprise can use in a heuristic way to ascertain the extent and depth of social capital and its generation within a community enterprise.

Here is an example of some of the questions around trust that could be included in the stocktake.  The questions might be completed individually, then discussed in a group of those involved in the community enterprise with the aim of bringing about a ‘healthier’ score. (‘5’ means that one totally agrees with left hand statement; and ‘1’ means that one totally agrees with the right hand statement).

In general we trust the organisations we work with 5  4  3  2  1 We are not very trusting of other organisations
We think that the organisations we work with are very much trusting in us and feel we are reliable 5  4  3  2  1 We no not think that other organisations trust us to deliver and be relied upon
We trust our staff and Board members to do things well on our behalf 5  4  3  2  1 Relationships between people doing work for us and on behalf of us is not based on trust

Very often community enterprises (and indeed others within the wider social economy) do not acknowledge social capital and dismiss it as ‘common sense’ or ‘networking’ or ‘what we do anyway’.   I would argue that it is only when you take stock of social capital, that you begin to recognise it and understand its value to your community enterprise.

The above self-assessing stocktake could be part of a social report and could be used to recognise trends – while at the same time flagging up the importance of taking social capital into account in future planning.

The other side of this, is assessing levels of social capital within communities and then trying to work out whether not a community enterprise contributes to those levels.  This is much harder.  People have developed a series of questions asking residents in a community how they would respond to a certain situation and then from these responses make a judgment of the levels of social capital within a community.  Or alternatively others ask a series of questions to be answered by the wider community. Here is an example of some possible questions (the numbering applies as above).

People in this community are ready and willing to help others 5  4  3  2  1 People in this community are only concerned with their own lives
It is easy to get involved in community activity here. 5  4  3  2  1 It is difficult to get involved in community activity here.
People mix well across all social groups in this community 5  4  3  2  1 People don’t mix well across social groups in this community

Back in the early days of social accounting and audit and especially when the practice centred around community enterprise, there was an expectation for a community enterprise to assess and describe the socio-economic profile of the area served by the community enterprise.  In recent years, the guidance in keeping social accounts is to only include the community context and details on the community needs the enterprise will focus on.

There is also a question of attribution.  How does one know that the raised level of social capital in a community, say, can be because of the actions of the community enterprise?  This is difficult and it is best to assume that if the actions and objectives of the community enterprise are clear, and the levels of social capital reportedly rise, then it can be said that the actions of the community enterprise have at least contributed to the increase in levels of social capital.

All types of enterprises do not exist in isolation but as part of a web of interconnected relationships.   In getting things done and in making things happen they should be able to tap into contacts and use good relationships to carry out effectively what they want to do.

There are, however, limitations to what high levels of social capital can do.  It has to be used in conjunction with other forms of capital – financial, human, environmental and cultural.

Despite this, making an assessment of social capital generated and used by a community enterprise as part of a social report, I believe, is important.  An analysis of the form and nature of relationships a community enterprise has with other organisations is crucial and can show where it should focus in developing and enhancing those relationships.

This link between social capital and the actions of a community enterprise can be reported within a social impact report – benefiting the enterprise in terms of future planning and resource allocation; and its wider community in terms of more cohesion and enhanced inter-relationships.

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

Assessing social enterprise and their impacts? Are we looking at the right stuff?

With the rapid expansion of what is now really an ‘industry’ surrounding the measurement and assessment of social impact, it may be beneficial to reflect on whether or not we are looking to assess the ‘right’ things.  Are social enterprises, in particular, focussing their energy on the things that matter?

In this blog I would like to look at two things.

The first is the seemingly dogged emphasis on ‘impact’ and not always paying sufficient attention to the performance of an organisation.  Linked to this is a lack of attention to an organisation’s approach, its values and its way of doing things that make it different from other organisations – particularly privately owned businesses.

The second is much wider and I shall argue that the accepted and traditional triple bottom line impacts of social, environmental and economic should be questioned.  Arguably, social enterprises should be aiming to impact on people, the environment and society or ‘culture’.

So taking the first…and to do this I want to look at the history of social accounting and audit.  Back in the 1990s social and community enterprises, along with voluntary organisations tried reporting regularly and in a systematic way on their overall performance against their objectives.  In the mid-2000s, there was a pendulum swing away from performance and much more stress given to the impact an organisation has on its stakeholders.  This was largely linked to the meteoric rise in Social Return on Investment (SROI) and, I believe, driven by investors and funders wanting to get a bigger bang for their buck.  Reporting by social enterprises and similar third sector organisations focussed almost entirely on the outcomes for stakeholders and not nearly so much on how well the organisation performed given the context in which it was working, or on what type of organisation it was trying to be – its approach, its shared values and so on.

There are recent signs that this pendulum swing is beginning to move back and people are now also wanting to know if the organisation is performing well – not least of all the organisation itself.  There is also a need to know if it is a ‘good’ organisation to be seen to be investing in, to be working for and to be proud to support.

With Social Accounting and Audit (SAA) an organisation is expected to report not only on its outcomes and impacts on stakeholders, but also on its performance against its overall purpose and objectives.  Again, context is important as often organisations are operating under difficult circumstances and providing goods and services in often the most challenging of situations.

In addition, and using the SAA framework, organisations are obliged to report on their internal processes and values.  This is mainly through the use of a simple checklist called the Key Aspects Checklist which prompts the organisation to consider its own approach to 6 aspects common to all organisations:

  • how the people who work for an organisation are treated;
  • how the organisation is governed and how accountable is it;
  • how surplus is used and whether or not there is an asset lock;
  • its financial sustainability;
  • how it impacts on the environment; and finally
  • how it contributes to the local economy if it is community based.

Turning to the second thing I want to look at…the impacts.  Traditionally, it has been widely regarded that social enterprises have a ‘triple bottom line’ of social, environmental and economic impacts.  I am increasingly of the opinion that social enterprise should be using economic activities as a means to an end – the end being working towards social, environmental and societal impacts (see diagram).

environmental impact

Rather than perceiving the economy as an ‘impact’, the use of economic activities is what a social enterprise does – a means. But this is different from the final ends, which are impacts on individual and groups (social), impacts on the planet (environment) and impacts on the relationship between people and groups (society).  Thus, economic activities are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.

A social enterprise has to ensure that it impacts on people and their livelihoods in a positive way ensuring prosperity and well-being.  I am defining prosperity here, as being more than money and distinct from wealth for its own sake.

All organisations and people have an impact on the environment.  At the very least, a social enterprise can monitor that it does not have an adverse or negative affect on the environment.

 In this model society is defined as the relationships between people and groups.  It includes the culture of a society – the way we do things, the rules and behaviours and the expectations of how things should be.  All social enterprises operate in a societal context and social enterprises in particular should monitor and at least account for their impact on the wider society in which they it operate – their contribution to a culture that promotes fairness, equality and the ‘common good’.

Social Accounting and Audit is not rocket science.  It is a holistic framework that enables an organisation to report on all aspects of its performance and impact, internally and externally.  It is only in having this well rounded view that an organisation can be in a position to improve and at the same time be able to prove thus evidencing its achievements and its contribution to social change.

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

December 2015

The need for social ‘audit’…

Is it me or is there a huge increase of almost epidemic proportions of social impact reporting amongst organisations and social enterprises that wish to explain the social difference they make.

This is to be welcomed, but it does raise the question of how much credibility we should attribute to these reports.  Some of them are well-researched and detailed, others are more grandiose in their claims – but surely there must be some way of ensuring they possess integrity and are a true representation of what the organisation has achieved and the social impact it has made.

Understanding what changes as a result of an organisation’s actions is important, but it is also important to know that the claims made, have integrity.  Thus, in the same way that financial accounts are given credence with an independent audit of the financial detail, it is clear that an account of the social change achieved by or organisation should be independently audited.  This would enable on organisation to be confident of its claims and would show it to be accountable to a wide range of its stakeholders as well as to the wider public.

Organisations often employ independent evaluators to assess the degree of change that has happened as a result of their activity.  This is fair enough, but it is expensive.  Should an organisation not, therefore, keep social accounts using a social book-keeping system comprising of output and outcome information – and then subject that account to a ‘social’ audit?  This would lie alongside the financial accounts and provide a more holistic picture of an organisation’s performance and impact.

The Social Audit Network (SAN) has be wrestling with these issues since the early 1990s.  Through the experience of working with grassroots organisations and believing that organisations themselves can be empowered by keeping a track of their own monitoring and evaluation, we developed a process of ‘social accounting and audit’.

Annually an organisation would produce a social account of its performance and impact.  This would then go to audit.  In the early development of the process, a single ‘social auditor’ was used and this worked up to a point.  However, a single person does not know everything and we plumped for the idea of having a panel of people – one who is a ‘social auditor’ and chairs the Panel meeting; at least one who knows the field of the organisation’s operation; and at least one other that knows the geographical area in which the organisation operates.  To keep the costs down only the chair gets paid and the others volunteer.

The independent panel meets with the organisation for one day, having received the Draft Social Accounts in advance, and goes through them in detail suggesting changes, revisions, etc.  There is a process which allows for feedback and discussion and also includes a random trail back to source materials and a checklist matching the draft against the eight social accounting principles (include here).

The Panel is not evaluating the organisation but, instead is assessing whether or not the Draft Social Accounts are credible.  Once revisions have been made the Panel issues a statement – similar to a financial audit statement – that says, in their opinion, the social accounts are a fair reflection of what the organisation has achieved in terms of its performance and impact over the last social accounting period.  The accounting process and audit is then built into the life cycle of the organisation.

In assessing the operations and activities of complex organisations over, say, a year, can be complex and result in long and complicated reports that have to be audited.  For this reason often an organisation will write a summary version that is more widely distributed.  However, this summary could not be written as an accurate document if the evidence had not been included in a more substantial report.

The social accounting and audit process is not completely fool-proof, but actual experience shows that it is effective and can provide valuable and impartial feedback to an organisation that not only wants to prove what it does but also want to improve in its effectiveness.

SAN believes that the audit part of social accounting and audit is essential. If not, we are going to get swamped with detailed reports, purporting to explain the social, environmental and cultural change that has happened as a result of and organisation’s activities…without necessarily knowing if we, as the wider public, can take them seriously or not.

The social audit should not become a way of consultants and other companies making money.  It is about subjecting what one says about the performance and impact of an organisation, is true, meaningful and based on acquired and collected information – both quantitative and qualitative.  It would re-assure the wider public of the authenticity of ‘social impact reports’ and at the same time can be used to plan focus and future actions.

These are key reasons why social audit is badly needed – particularly for organisations with a central purpose around social change.

Lastly it has to be said that carrying through with social accounting and audit is not for the faint hearted…  An interesting early quote about ‘ethical accounting’ (which has much in common with social accounting) is…

“Ethical accounting is not for softies or funks. It takes guts to hang your dirty linen in public and to walk your talk.” Jorgen Giversen, former CEO of SBN Bank

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