Friday, 8 April 2011

Can social impact really be measured? Really?

Can social impact really be measured?

I've been thinking about Rob Edwards' comment on my last blog and have decided it deserves a blog of its own. In his response Rob, reflecting on Magic Breakfast's call for investment of £13 million in a social impact bond that offers £28 million in savings from the additional Government expenditure needed to address the social problems of children too hungry to learn, Rob said, "This is the whole problem with social enterprise. The returns can be somewhat ephemeral, and an awful lot of time and money goes into setting up organisations rather than actually delivering services that people want."

Is this the case? Is measuring social impact ephemeral and therefore too academic to bring into a discussion about investment? Can social enterprises miss the point and make an offer that is not really what people want?

Clearly some people think so and if we are to make any real progress, we have to address these criticisms, and not just by refuting them from the vantage point of the moral high ground, but by generating the data that proves our services are needed and our social return has been critically assessed and properly measured.  

Just after the election I had a meeting with the man put in charge of regeneration in a major Government department, he asked me, "How do we create regeneration and cut spending?"

I advised introducing social impact assessment across the whole department and insisting that the impact of cuts were assessed for their wider social impact and concomitant cost before decisions are made about what stays and what goes. Needless to say he didn't, or couldn't, follow my advice, but I am sticking to my guns, because despite a slow start, members of the Government namely, Nick, Hurd, Francis Maude, Ken Clarke, George Osborne and the Prime Minister himself have shown growing enthusiasm for social impact bonds making this an ideal time to take out the tape measure.

I do appreciate this is not easy. When I started looking into impact measurement I too was baffled and because I found it tough, I made sure SEL had the brains to work it out with people on the team like Ali Somers who devised the first social value balance score card and went on to head up the social impact unit at Goldsmiths. Also, Sabina Khan came to us from the impact assessment team in Lehman Brothers in New York and has since founded the world's leading Social Enterprise Journal, developed  SEL's SIMPLE programme our how-to guide to assessing which tool is right for you and launched our fantastically popular Introduction to social impact assessment training. Because SEL has been developing tools with real social enterprises working on the ground, often in the most difficult circumstances, we have come up with solutions that work for busy social entrepreneurs not just academic exercises. The goal has been to move social enterprise from being characterised as warm, fuzzy charity to one where hard evidence shows how it really works.

As times get tougher, the clamour for evidence will get louder. Occupying the moral high ground with its stunning views no longer guarantees any of us a future. Being able to produce data about the exact cost of your product or service and measure its impact will give you future contracts, boost your bottom line and ensure you offer services that, as Rob recommends, "people want". I know because we have done it at SEL and it really, really works, honest Rob.

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