As we continue to face social and economic challenges, the need for value for money and maximised social impact continues to increase. The Social Value Act of 2012 has seen an acceleration of this trend. More recently, the demand for both financial and social return is reflected in the Government’s backing of Social Impact Bonds and injection of £20m a year (Autumn Statement 2015). As a result, public sector commissioners increasingly want to know how much value their investment creates and social reporting figures help them to decide where to put their money.
When you market your organisation as one that is making positive impact, you open yourself up to extra scrutiny. Expectations are high and those looking at your impact will often compare your results to other organisations as a way to see ‘how good you are at doing good’. Figures can often be skewed and this contest to demonstrate the greatest impact creates the need for larger and larger numbers and more and more sensational stories in order to stand out- especially so in an economic climate with heightened competition for funding and customers.
So even if we are good at achieving positive impact, social impact figures are not necessarily going to reflect that or get us noticed.
Tools like Social Return on Investment (designed by New Economics Foundation) have been designed to measure the efficiency of projects to generate impact. The ratio of £:£ tells you exactly how good your projects are at doing good. But even this data doesn’t tell us about the needs of those you are supporting; it can’t capture the value of change to an individual; and it doesn’t explain why your work is important and why other people should care about it. Figures don’t tell the full story; you have to look beyond the data.
What I am getting at is the ‘so what’ statement. Context is everything in social impact measurement. Whatever type of organisation you work for, it’s really important to tell a story that others can get behind; whether they are customers, investors, partners or your staff. For this reason, you have to really know who your audience is and what matters to them.
“We realise a lot of social enterprises don’t have the means to do full social impact reporting. They just need to clearly articulate what they’re doing”
Venturesome in The Guardian, 2012, ‘The growing importance of social impact reporting’
“Audiences don’t have 30 seconds to be interrupted, but they always have 30 minutes to hear a great story”
Sweetman, J., ‘The importance of social impact’
For 2 years, Manor House Development Trust has invested a great deal of time and money improving its impact measurement processes. As a ‘community development’ organisation, we found it difficult to articulate the impact we were having, in a way all of our stakeholders could understand. The concept of ‘Community’ means many different things to different people. It could be any size, any location (it doesn’t even need a location) and each of us probably belongs to many different ‘communities’. The word ‘Development’ in the context of community is also very difficult to describe, even though no one could deny its importance.
And this is what we were faced with as an organisation. How do we succinctly describe what it is we are trying to do, whilst also explaining these complex concepts? How do we tell the story, without it becoming a novel?
“We realised that even though we describe ourselves as a community development organisation,we don’t actually do community development”
Simon Donovan, Manor House Development Trust
The answer came from speaking to people, lots of people, about what changes we have brought about for them and why that was important; whether they were funders, service-users, staff or partners. And gradually, we began to use their language- piecing it all together. Key themes, priorities and commonalities emerged, which would then form the 5 Business Objectives of our new Business Plan.
What this has allowed us to do is to tell a narrative that speaks to many different types of stakeholders. It follows through the journey explaining how a project (however small) contributes to a wider context and can create a legacy for the future. The narrative has also steered the branding of the organisation, where the language of our stakeholders is embedded in the Business Plan and all communications that flow from it. Crucially, the narrative provides a framework whereby all future impact can be captured and reported effectively. In other words, we know what our impact is before our projects even start.
So in answer to the question: How good are we at doing ‘good’?
In my view, we are only as good as the story we tell.
Originally published on http://www.mhdt.org.uk/our-impact/blog-november/ 27th November 2015