The Importance of Social Impact
Blog by James Sweetman, co-founder of Stickyboard - a social enterprise focused on bringing community together through online platforms.
Being inspired very first thing in the morning is not a regular thing, but it happened this week. The combination of the double shot coffee and reading Laura Fedorciow’s guardian article on the importance of measuring Social Impact, really inspired me. Not only because Fedorciow’s advice spoke to our experiences at our social enterprise Stickyboard, but also because it started me thinking about the importance of Social Impact as a whole.
By being a social enterprise you intrinsically weave making a real and sustainable difference in people’s lives into your business model. As a concept, this is gaining traction. For society in such a time of austerity and cuts, looking out for each other has never been more important. On an individual level, it allows you and your employees to feel a part of something: gaining a feeling of satisfaction everyday as opposed to simply working for a monthly pay check. These factors may explain why, despite tough economic times, the social enterprise sector continues to grow. Even last year saw the top 100 fastest growing social enterprises growing on average by 91%.
As the appeal of social enterprise grows, however, so too does the need to be able to demonstrate the social return of these organisations. Measuring Social Impact is key to both individual organisations and the sector as a whole for three key reasons:
Foundations - Standardising access to finance
To attract investors a business needs to clearly demonstrate financial return on investment. It stands to reason then that a Social Investor should apply the same standards to both financial and social aspects of any grant giving/seed funding process. Nesta Investment Management as well as the new wave of funds becoming available to social enterprises exemplifies this. And this wish to balance both financial and social aspects of investment is very clearly being articulated in the Cabinet Offices’ backing of Social Impact bonds in its Social Outcomes Fund.
It is certainly hard to apply a one-size-fits-all framework to the complex issue of measuring Social Impact. But attempts and logical reasoning behind recording and evaluating metrics in relation to key performance indicators mark an invaluable first step in getting Social Investors and potential candidates for investment to speak the same language. This is key to moving beyond early stages, and starting to work at the scale required to realise the potential of social enterprise.
Performance - Making a real difference in a sustainable way
The strength of being a social enterprise lies partly on its predisposition to bring lessons from business and apply them to answering social need. This not only means the financial sustainability of an enterprise becomes a top priority, but it also encourages us to think delivery of social good as more than a static end result.
If you were wishing to improve your marketing, you would measure the effectiveness of multiple strategies so as to constantly iterate and improve campaigns. If we start measuring and thinking of Social Impact in a similar way, more good in our neighbourhoods can be achieved. Rather than thinking of it as the end product, viewing Social Impact as an ongoing outcome to be measured means that we can move to tackle new and different social needs, seek more efficient delivery methods, grow in terms of scale of impact etc. Or, in rough marketing speak, take advantage market opportunities, optimise channels to market, increase market penetration etc.
Spread - Forming connections through inspiring stories
Less directly but perhaps more importantly by measuring Social Impact we can inspire more social change. The more people involved, the more of a difference social organisations can have. To really engage audiences I believe we need to measure social impact and be creative in how we communicate it.
Audiences don't have 30 seconds to be interrupted, but they always have 30 minutes to hear a great story. By collecting data on Social Impact, the sector can begin to form a compelling narrative and individual organisations tell stories people can get behind: sowing the seed in their minds that they too can make a difference. In fact, next week there is an event with Say Media “What's your story and how is it defining your marketing?” - definitely worth checking out.
They say an image is worth 1000 words, and in today’s social media world they certainly get a lot more ‘likes.’ Providing a visual means for people to interact with your Social Impact is key to inspiring further social impact. One could present social impact data in Infographs, or (if your organisation has a geographic focus) you could take inspiration from UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis department site. Last week alone, the department’s Dr Martin Zaltz Austwick gave a thought provoking presentation at think tank NLGN on how we can creatively present data in real-time using maps.
Whilst some may think this just a marketing consideration, we see effectively measuring and communicating Social Impact as having a pivotal role in the most important outcome of all - social good.
James Sweetman is co-founder of SEUK member Stickyboard - a social enterprise focused on bringing community together through online platforms.