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Beyond social impact to social value

With all public bodies now obliged to take social value into account when buying services, it is important to differentiate it from social impact, says Dom Potter


This article first appeared on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network here.

For all of the successes of social impact debates in the UK, we have struggled to get beyond the inward-facing debates about the different approaches, tools, frameworks and mechanisms to capture and demonstrate impact.

At a time when the Public Services (Social Value) Act has just been passed, which will require all public bodies to take into account the social value of any services it buys, it is clear that things need to change if social value is to be embedded within public procurement.

It is, therefore, necessary to unpick the concepts of social impact from that of social value, otherwise there is a very real danger that the opportunity to embed the broader concept of social value into mainstream business and public service thinking and practice may be missed.

There are then some key differences it may be useful to think about when we talk about social value and social impact.

Firstly, social impact is fundamentally about isolating and measuring direct cause-and-effect relationships between a specific set of activities and outcomes. It lends itself to narrow definitions and controlled data capture.

Social value on the other hand is, at its core, cumulative. It is about weaving together a holistic view of what difference has been made to society as a whole. Social value is about a systemic, network effect rather than the isolated impact on a defined set of individuals.

Secondly, social impact is fixed. It is concerned with providing a snapshot of a point in time and measuring what happened and to whom it happened.

Social value is about context. As a concept, social value is at its most potent when it is thought of as akin to storytelling – providing a narrative for impact which allows us to see beyond distinct events to give us a richer, deeper understanding of not just what happened to whom, but also why it happened and the implications of this.

Encompassing the idea of value, we can also think of social value as dynamic rather than fixed, constantly shifting depending on what society is valuing from one moment to the next.

Lastly, social impact is about reducing complexity. Through established research methodologies it seeks to provide accessible, at-a-glance indications of the cause and effect of a set of activities. Social value is about embracing complexity. Just as in a good book, the best stories aren’t necessarily the simplest and so it is with social value.

Every social organisation has a social value story to tell, and it is those who do so with imagination, passion and creativity who will be able to articulate to funders, stakeholder and clients their story in the most compelling ways.

These are just some of the thoughts I had as I have seen the rise of the concept of social value. I have been posting more on Twitter under the hashtag #100socialvaluethoughts and if you have any thoughts of your own on where I may be wrong or if I might have a kernel of a point then get involved. It is time we all started pushing the social value debate to a place where the concept itself has the most social value to public services and social enterprises.

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