Social Value Q&A: Benefits Balancing
In my work at a not-for-profit, I often come across situations where it is not clear where we should be directing our finite resources in order to generate the most social value. It is not that I can’t recognise great work when I see it; stuff that has clearly made a positive impact on someone's life. However, I do not have a framework that allows me to quantify this and compare one resource allocation decision with another.
Imagine this scenario: I have a certain amount of money to spend on providing a service, let’s say giving young people quality information that will improve their lives. The cost of reaching a young person with information about obtaining college grants is X. The cost of providing a young person who is in the middle of an emotional crisis with information about readily accessible mental health supports could be three times as high (3X), primarily because they are a lot harder to reach. In other words, and I realise this is simplistic, I could be spending my budget on helping three people to get into education or one person to cope with an acute mental health crisis. Ideally you would do both, but the funding does not always allow for this.
Although the problem you outline sounds like one of those riddles or ethics questions you might sometimes come across (and in many ways it is both of these!), there are ways to achieve clarity.
This is where the Principles of Social Value really come in to their own, in particular principle 1: ‘involve stakeholders’. Those who are most qualified to tell you how much social value is being generated by your various services are the young people themselves. It is often not possible to ask them about this at the point at which they are receiving those services, but there is no reason why you cannot do this at some other time. You can use traditional means such as surveys or focus groups or use more innovative ways of gathering their feedback. This does not mean that the views of other stakeholders should be ignored, but that they should probably be secondary to those of the young people.
We cannot pre-empt what the young people will say. But let us imagine that those who used the information provided by your organisation to find out about college grants were happy with that information and they indicated that it helped them to some extent in their journey towards higher education. If we were using the Social Return On Investment approach, we could calculate an equivalent monetary value for that benefit, which may or may not be higher than the costs of providing the information in the first place. We could then do the same with those young people who had been helped when they were in severe distress.
It would not be unreasonable to deduce that the value of your intervention with those young people could be considerably higher, even if the costs of providing the service were also higher. If you enter all the relevant data into a spreadsheet you would be able to explore the different scenarios, because of course it also depends on how many young people we are talking about in each category.
There are likely to be many other factors to consider and trade-offs to be made. Whatever the case, you must make sure that you truly ‘understand what changes’ (principle 2) for each stakeholder, only ‘value the things that matter’ to them (principle 3), ‘only include what is material’ (principle 4), ‘do not over-claim’ (principle 5), ‘be transparent’ in your calculations and about your assumptions (principle 6), and ‘verify the result’ (principle 7). Lastly and very importantly, you must ‘be responsive’ (principle 8) which means acting on the new insights gained, so that your organisation continues to generate as much social value as it possibly can, despite resource constraints.