Why Social Value is truly priceless

31 October 2018

Catherine Greig, Director, make:good

As a term that gets thrown around a lot, social value has some slightly foggy thinking about it. People know it’s important, with large contracts expected to offer a social value strand, but it often falls short of providing what it should – real benefits to real people.

So what is social value? A standard definition might be:

‘… wider financial and non-financial impacts of programmes, organisations and interventions, including the wellbeing of individuals and communities, social capital and the environment.’

In our line of work, it refers to the wider impact our work has had on people involved with or affected by our projects; focusing on the positive impacts but acknowledging any negative ones and taking steps to remedy them.

When bidding for work, we often get asked what the social value of our offer is. I find this a challenging question – our raison d’être is to support communities to positively impact local change, which to me sounds like social value in itself! But I tend to highlight the fact that we know that our approach to engagement and design reinforces existing local networks and builds new ones that exist long after our time on a project has finished. It’s an important and very deliberate outcome of our work – albeit one that is rather hard to measure.

The thing with a term like social value is that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some take a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to it governed by what they want to deliver, rather than considering what’s best suited to the needs of a local context. For example, work experience, workshops and talks – all of which might be great in some contexts – need to be relevant and timely, in order to maximise the potential for social value. Otherwise, they can miss the point.

Our responsive approach means it can be a little harder to determine these outcomes upfront. By ensuring that participants guide and define what a project becomes we gain relevance and insight, but often lose the ability to know where it’ll end up! When it works however, I think it offers much more value.

As a starting point, we:

  1. Push out prior preconceptions and don’t just focus on the things that are easy for us to offer, so that we might really hear what is needed and what there is an appetite for. This sounds really obvious but its a step that we see getting missed all the time.
  2. Programme activities collaboratively and support strands of work that are relevant to a particular community. Interestingly, it usually leads to lots of learning for us as well!

Among other things, we have found ourselves co-ordinating street parties, supporting residents to facilitate workshops for the first time, editing a hyper-local newspaper, organising community led sports days, trips to playgrounds, holding film screenings and tending to community gardens.

Perhaps the key message here is that it’s never good enough to make assumptions about what will deliver social value. It is far more important to listen to what local people are saying, what they think would be useful and finding ways to provide it; be that doing something only slightly differently, or bringing in other people to supplement skills that you don’t have.

That’s the thing about social value – everyone has an understanding of what it is but a different idea of how to make it happen. As we always say in the make:good studio – “we’re not saving lives here”. What we are here to do is listen to the people affected by change, and unleash social value by ensuring our projects are responsive to their context, needs and aspirations.