These days, few organisations can escape the clamour to assess the ‘Social Return on Investment’, or SROI, of proposed new projects. But how often are local people actually asked what they need from local investment, and how realistic are the aims of delivery?
The burden of delivery
The interest in social return is driven at international, national, and local levels, with OECD noting that “[s]ocial impact investment has become increasingly relevant in today’s economic setting as social challenges have mounted while public funds in many countries are under pressure”. This report emerged from the G8 Social Impact Investment Forum in June 2013, which also led to the setting up of a range of international task forces and groups.
Despite this globalised scope and interest, the responsibility of many assessments of social impact fall on small, local, community organisations. Public or charitable funding for small community based organisations may depend on a commitment to deliver benefits to local residents or the local environment – outcomes such as better health, job training, relief from overburdening debt, and responsive support for victims of domestic violence. Larger public and semi-public bodies, like Housing Associations, are also expected to deliver additional social value. All may also be required to monitor and ‘monetise’ their outcomes.
However, the mechanisms for doing this can be both challenging and challenged. Challenging because of the time and effort that may be needed to reliably track social outcomes. Challenged because of concerns about spurious quantification, scepticism about causal links claimed between positive outcomes and specific local action, and the sometimes incomplete or imprecise evidence and assumptions used.
Give the people what they want
Nevertheless, there is a growing body of good practice guidance and more rigorous standards and frameworks. Social Value UK, NESTA, and the UK government all have provided guidance the key principles of social return and those principles highlight the value of it. This value is less about claiming the quantified benefits and much more about strategic reflection on how to create additional social value – better outcomes for local residents and communities.
Three of the principles are crucial and closely aligned here – involving stakeholders, valuing the things that mater, and understanding what changes. My own work in this area has been mainly about neighbourhood regeneration and poverty reduction by registered social landlords (housing associations) and other community anchor organisations, so my analysis is based primarily on social return in these contexts.
Involving stakeholders recognises two crucial points. First, new or external organisations who decide to do things to residents of poor neighbourhoods without asking what they need (as many, regrettably, still fail to do) risk failing to address the actual local problems. Second, it risks ignoring the undoubted pool of local knowledge held by other support networks and long-standing organisations who have been working with residents for some time. So some traditional “solutions” for regeneration may miss the point. Providing an expensive new community hall may not address a real need for a cheap high-speed broadband local hub on a peripheral estate.
Valuing the things that matter take this a stage further, not least as it includes the need to understand both what matters for residents – for example helping their adolescent children get a good chance in life – but also exploring and understanding the best research and good practice on what works to deliver this goal.
A strategic approach
This comes together in the principle of understanding what changes, which in effect is developing a theory of change for activities aimed at delivering the final social value outcome benefits in the neighbourhood. A theory of change forces an organisation – like housing association or community anchors – to take a hard and strategic look at what they actually can and can’t do, and how they can influence, fund, or support other strategic partners to bring about change. Housing associations can’t operate as youth workers – but they can provide key infrastructure to enable a good youth service to be delivered, and use their influence to attract partners to invest.
So social return is not simply, or even mainly, a financial calculation. These calculations are invaluable in helping to prioritise options for driving change, not least as the values attached to outcomes often reflect extensive and robust evidence of impacts. But the key question is to identify the relative value amongst options, not the absolute monetary value produced by a model.
At the heart of social return is providing a strategic, systematic approach to thinking deeply about how additional social benefit can be realised by taking the time to talk to people about what they really need from local investment and being realistic about what and how that might be delivered.