SROI – the analysis that dare not speak its name

February 12th, 2012

The last few weeks have seen me at some very interesting sessions with Government departments – both the DCMS on measuring cultural value and the DfE for the evaluation of the Myplace programme.

The greatest pleasure was finding out that Treasury has a Green Book Team.  That’s a team I’d like to be in, and I’m sure my children would too.  Especially bearing in mind the power they wield.

But my serious point is that there seems to be an emerging consistency about measuring social impact, and that it largely revolves around the techniques used in social return on investment analysis.  The Treasury folks at the DCMS meeting were very keen to point out that they are not only interested in a financial return, but that the case made for a non-financial return needs to be as rigorous and clear.  Fair enough. Both the participants in that workshop, and the Sheffield Hallam team evaluating Myplace talked about proxy values, attribution and cost benefit analysis as ways to meet that challenge.

In fact, the Green Book Team (there’s a Magenta Book too…) was closely involved in development of the SROI guide back in 2009 so it has their stamp of approval.  In July last year they updated their own guidance to consider ‘social cost benefit analysis’ using approaches like ‘willingness to pay’ which you would use in SROI.  There’s a bit about it here http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/data_greenbook_news.htm which talks about a discussion paper on “three techniques for the valuation of non-market impacts in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. Revealed preference and stated preference are two ‘market based approaches’ which have been referenced in the Green Book for some time. This paper introduces a third approach, involving the measurement of subjective well-being, which has been gaining currency in recent years.”  Have a look at my blog from January for a bit on that.

So amidst grim austerity, there a real change for good may come about.  What really excites me is how this might link to an evidence base for social finance and payment by results.  In particular I think that if the big philanthropic givers who contribute to the youth zones we’re working with can be reimbursed for what they give then they can re-invest again and again.  And that really would make a difference to people’s lives.

On Friday I was at the second meeting of the SROI UK Council and there was much debate about the merits of focusing on social value more widely.  It seems to me that this is a very valuable way to promote the techniques of SROI – the proxy values, attribution, cost-benefit and so on – to a wider audience who may have reservations about SROI.

In the next few months we’re delivering training to various voluntary sector organisations through Children England.  In this training we need to put SROI analyses firmly in their right place, which is part of an overall plan > do > review approach to management – a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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