Something has shifted in my relationship with my step dad. He’s always been a tough cookie to crack. For years he has considered my work of community development to be ‘fluffy’ or ‘touchy feely’. A little bit…arty (cue nostrils flared in suspicion).
But now, having invested in properly understanding our social value, when I talk about our work at Onion I can use statistics that show the benefit of the work that we are doing and this is the stuff that he can understand and accept. I mix anecdotal human stories, with the results of information collected year on year. When the idea of cultural, community projects is backed up by social impact data, then suddenly the work becomes more serious, more interesting and more valuable in more people’s eyes.
Of course, it’s not about my step dad. What matters is not him who suddenly sits up and takes notice, it’s about funders, investors, government, customers, clients. By explicitly pointing out the social and economic benefits that your business gives to society, especially if you can use numbers, your enterprise becomes not just nice to have around, but critical, particularly in this brave new world of austerity, climate change and political uncertainty.
The way we do business is changing and it’s pointing to a promising future: now 1 in 5 start-up businesses are set up by social entrepreneurs1, and this new generation of business-savvy, socially-conscious and environmentally-aware young entrepreneurs consider social impact to be their top business priority2.
Part of our work at Onion is to help businesses maximise their social value, and to shout loud about it. We’ve learnt that the side effect of understanding your business’s social value is the extraordinarily empowering and connecting effect it has on those who work for the business. Be they trustees, staff members or volunteers. This work is as much about internal communications as it is about external. Incidentally, we’re taking this lesson further and extending it across our town—by highlighting the huge value of the social action that already happens here we can celebrate our community and build collective pride and belonging.
Here’s our top tips!
1. Turn your frustration into action: Get into an argument with somebody close to you who you keep failing to impress. Grapple for statistics you know to be true but don’t have the evidence for. Fail at funding bids, lose customers, know you are not communicating your value. Moan to long suffering friends one too many times.
2. Include everyone in the process—it’s empowering: Collect in one room all the people who are vital to your business. Your board, your volunteers, staff. Try to keep the group under 15 (hold more than one workshops if necessary). Make sure the room is full of natural light, provide good food and allow plenty of time. Cover a large central table in paper for people to write on, doodle on, draw on. Provide the nicest and most colourful felt tip pens you can muster. (stationery is always pleasing)
3. Understand what you’re doing it all for: In the workshop ensure each person has an equal voice, and given equal space to speak. Ask what personally motivates each person? What problem is the business trying to solve? What change does the business want to make in the world? What will success look like? This is essentially about being clear about what you think your social value is. Agree on your overarching impact statement. This is your mission, (should you chose to accept it) Agree on your top 3 or 4 most important outcome statements. These are the ways in which your business will make the world a better place. For example maybe you are helping to reduce loneliness, or you are giving young people new opportunities.
4. Build a logical plan to guide your work: Create a plan for how you will achieve everything you want to; how you will know when you’ve been successful? And for how long will you measure in order to determine success? This will give you all the information you need to know if it’s working, what to stop doing, what to do more of, and how to change. Give yourself targets for how you will know when you have succeeded. How many people will you have employed? Or volunteers will you have? how many people to you hope to make a positive impact on? In what ways will you do these things? Work out how to map these outcomes (changes you want to make) and outputs (measurable targets) and your activities (things you deliver) against indicators of success, monitoring methods, assumptions you are making and risks you will be taking. For these last two make contingency plans and mitigate the risks. Understand where your work fits into a national strategy, and what other data sets exist to compare your information to.
5. Make sure you collect the right stuff in the right way: Monitoring and evaluation are the cornerstone of social impact work, but only worth it if you are doing it right. This is your bread and butter, and it will become as normal to your business as worrying about VAT. The question is how will you collect the information you need? And how will you frame the questions? How will you know what happened because of the work you do versus what would have happened anyway, or because of what other people are doing? Surveys, workshops, events, door to door conversations, online polls. They all have positive and negative aspects. Weigh up expense vs. time vs. quality of information and choose a variety and method that most suits your organisation, but that also gets you the information you need.
6. Monetise anything you can: If the people you’re talking to are anything like my step-dad, it’s the numbers that matter. Monetising social value is not easy and there are many different ways to do (and often they are not compatible) so doing it well is hard. But, it can also be a game-changer in being able to persuade people of why what you are doing matters. Importantly, do not overstate your claim, it will undermine all your work.
7. Tell people what you found out: Analysis takes time and is worth investing in. If you choose to do this in house count and weigh your information and agree a standard method that you will use year on year. The first year is your base-line data. From this you can show growth and change as you collect the same data over the years. How you communicate this data is key. At Onion we use infographics as a quick visual way to show headline statistics, they are visual and easily digestible. Let this information form an integral part of your marketing strategy, funding bids and reports to government. Be proud of the work you have collected, this is not just data collection, it is community engagement and shows you have a real understanding of the people you engage with and the value of the incredible work you do.
8. Act on what you now know: Proving that what you are doing is valuable is important, but that’s only half the point. Your aim should be to maximise your social value not just measure it. This means taking what you have found out and changing because of it. If you aren’t prepared to change what you do in response to what you find out, don’t bother wasting your time and everyone else’s by going through a process of discovering it.
A couple of examples from us:
Impact infographic for our Watchet East Quay Development
The results of our annual residents survey in our Annual Report.
HSBC Private Banking, The Essence of Enterprise
London Loves Business, 12.6.18 https://londonlovesbusiness.com/young-entrepreneurs-choose-social-impact-as-their-top-business-priority/
Onion Collective work with communities and organisations across the country to help them to be the best versions of themselves. We offer tailored business support and speak from a position of 'on the ground' community development experience. We continue to develop our own projects and deliver a host of community services in our home town of Watchet in Somerset.
We have wide expertise and long-standing experience of the sector. Between us we have backgrounds in financial and project management, social research and impact, environmental sustainability, heritage and arts development and marketing and communications. We have worked with a whole range of organisations—from local authorities and funding trusts; to youth charities and community housing developers; and to art galleries and skate parks—always with a focus on social impact