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  • Sandra Velthuis

Social Value and How Best to Conceptualise It

At our launch event in January, we ran three breakout sessions. Here we explore what was presented and discussed in workshop 1. Summaries of workshops 2 and 3 will follow in due course.


Everyone agrees that social value is an important concept, yet precisely explaining what it means is actually quite hard. Certainly, a quick Google search will yield many different definitions, including what is believed to be the earliest formal use of the phrase in the British Medical Journal in 1872. The concept of value has of course been debated for centuries and Social Value Ireland does not pretend to be a salon for discussions on history, philosophy, religion or economics. Gaining some common understanding is nonetheless important. Different ways of presenting difficult concepts appeal to different people, so here goes:


It can be useful to think in terms of ‘more than’. This is easy enough when we consider the traditional sales model: in order for a company to be viable, it needs to charge more for its goods or services than they cost and the customer ideally has to believe that they are getting more value from the purchase than what they have paid.


This is all well and good for things that have a ready market value, but what about those that do not? We instinctively know that there are things that are far more important than money, and certainly, for those involved in the social sector, this is how we tend to think. Another way of conceptualising it, therefore, could be the social change model with which many of us familiar, whether it be as a ‘logic model’ or a ‘theory of change’. Social value can be construed as something that is the logical end of a chain:

Or, similarly, it can be seen through the lens of ‘consequences’, showing that, ultimately, nothing that we choose to do or avoid is neutral, with social value being the end game of those choices:


Alternatively, we could use the ‘capitals’ approach which posits that there are different things that are valuable in their own right and/or that can create value. Social value lies in the realm of human capital, social capital, intellectual capital and cultural capital, although inevitably, there is a constant interplay with other types of capital.


And, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, value is subjective. It is informed by what we believe is moral, relevant and important. There is thus a big overlap between our perception of value (social or otherwise) and our individual or organisational values/ethos:


As Geoff Mulgan pointed out in 2010: “Social value is not an objective fact. Instead, it emerges from the interaction of supply and demand, and therefore may change across time, people, places, and situations.” In other words, social value is complex. But we should not let that put us off trying to create it, assess it and maximise it.


There are many reasons for managing social value (and that includes measuring it, although measurement on its own is not enough). Common ones include: gaining an understanding of a service/organisation/local community/region/country; making informed decisions about allocating resources; and, very importantly, ensuring accountability to stakeholders. As such, social value is important for not-for-profit organisations, the public sector, commissioners, funders, academics and the business world, especially at a time when we are faced with so many pressing societal challenges.


We invite anyone in Ireland who wishes to be part of the movement that promotes and facilitates a social value approach to join us as we figure out how best to do this kind of work.

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