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Social Value – A nice-to-have or building blocks?

This is a guest blog by member Emma Back on social value in start-ups. This is part of the Member Exchange Series. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

It is a rare event for Day One of operation for a new charity or social enterprise to coincide with Day One of its social value strategy. The much more common scenario is for consideration of social value to be piecemeal and sporadic, like writing about it for a funding application or while at a workshop. Many people I’ve met who are starting social ventures don’t even know what it is and for those who do know, the motivation to measure and to analyse impact is low priority – a nice-to-have but a non-essential. This is understandable – resources are very tight and ‘the impact of social impact’ is not immediately visible if you’re still in the early stages of your venture.

At the Social Value Members Exchange in November, I heard a lot of stories about organisations which had increased their income, designed new services and deepened their impact purely as a result of paying attention to social value. It’s still too easy for these stories to be lost or ignored by emerging ventures. However, I believe social value is a powerful strategic and operational toolkit which creates its biggest influence while ideas and services are still taking shape – early stage companies and charities are missing out.

I’ve noticed in my online and offline tours of social enterprise start-up resources that social value information is always cordoned off into a separate section (“so now that we’ve considered your business plan, your competition, your finances and your customers, let’s talk about social value”). This feels wrong and off-putting. The various tools and stages of social value fit very naturally into the chronology of starting a business. Instead of being its own thing, with its own set of separate, intensive resource requirements sitting on top of the normal tasks involved in setting up a business or charity, what if we ask the question, how can social value slot into the normal activities of a start-up?

Here are some conversation starters:

Social value as business model

Of course, the theory of change plays a starring role here. Designing mission and goals using the theory as your framework has, in my experience, been the most succinct way of pinning down just exactly what I want the service to do and to achieve. It is a short-cut to creating a results-oriented business plan which doesn’t waffle.

Social value as motivator

I’m right at the beginning of my business idea. This can be lonely and tough at times. My understanding of social value means I’m recognising stakeholder impact as it occurs even though the service hasn’t ‘started’ yet. I’ve moved from seeing the problem and my future solution to seeing what changes for people, whoever they are and whatever stage the business is at.

Social value as quality management tool

KPIs versus outcome indicators. Need I say more?! What’s lacking is a demonstration of how it can double up to serve existing certifications, for example, ISO9001 or Investors in People, or simply as your monitoring framework for funders. More usually, advice on your social value indicators focuses on sitting alongside a broader system, not integrating with it.

Social value as service designer

Has anyone else noticed the deep affinity between the world of service design and that of social value? Both use ‘Engage stakeholders’ as their core mantras and both have a predilection for mapping – for finding the hidden linkages between service goals, activities and real outcomes. By combining techniques from both, some very powerful stories can emerge.

For example, we could combine customer journey / experience mapping with the theory of change and an outcomes value map. Take a look at the Intuit experience map and the smily faces – this reminds me of intermediate outcomes… Stick values onto these stages together with the numbers of customers who reach them and you get the start of an accessible SROI analysis – one which offers great visibility for improving the positives and minimising the negatives in your service.

There are so many business elements where social value has something to offer (marketing, financial management, competition analysis etc). The difficulty start-ups face with social value is not to do with resources. It’s to do with the way the story of social value is being told at the moment. It’s still viewed as a bolt-on, an optional extra worth 5% of a commissioning exercise or an additional section in your business plan. It’s more work. But how wonderful would it be we could demonstrate a way for social value activities and tools to be woven into the natural activities of any new social enterprise or charity? Social Value Principles and methods could become the DNA of our future organisations, not the extra box on the form.


This is part of the Members Exchange Series, for more information, see here.

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