Why we like SROI

January 15th, 2018

Because we like, promote and use Social Return On Investment analysis a lot, I sometimes think we are perceived as being part of some shady SROI cult*, and that we have a mission to convert the world to our cause**.  But it’s the other way around.  We favour an SROI approach and work with others who do too, because over the years we’ve found it addresses so many of the challenges that evaluation of social programmes throws up.

For example, have you ever:

Struggled to capture the intangible, sensitive or ‘soft’ outcomes your work has? Like self-esteem, relationships or wellbeing?

Far from dumbing down by quantifying these outcomes, an SROI approach uses ‘proxy values’ to raise them up the agenda, putting them on a level playing field with economic benefits like helping someone find a job.  And it’s not a mickey mouse approach, as HM Treasury’s Green Book (the definitive guide for appraising big projects) recognises, we must do it:

“The valuation of non-market impacts is a challenging but essential element of this [appraisal], and should be attempted wherever feasible. The full value of goods such as health, educational success, family and community stability, and environmental assets cannot simply be inferred from market prices, but we should not neglect such important social impacts in policy making”.

For example, there is a fascinating report by Nattavudh Powdthavee, Putting a Price Tag on Friends, Relatives, and Neighbours, that values relationships at up to £85K a year in terms of life satisfaction.  Our own work using Valuation DIY usually puts relationships above all other outcomes too.

Underestimated the value of your preventative or deep-rooted work, or just felt you are really making a bigger difference?

An SROI approach captures the ripple effects.  It invites you to gather evidence for the chain of events that lead to real change, and to consider how long an outcome lasts.

In our SROI of Transported’s Taking pART we asked: is this a life-changing programme, or just nice to have? It enabled us to include the knock-on effect on participants year on year.  Backed up by objective evidence – that the participants set up their own ongoing art group and that some participants found jobs – we felt reasonably confident the value was almost doubled by lasting beyond the first year.  In our SROI forecast for Carlisle Youth Zone, we found a surprise impact on families, of around 18,000 hours of free time for parents whose kids joined.

Found the context too complex to work out what difference you are making?

Particularly when working with disadvantage, multiple factors come into play and impact can often be the shared responsibility of several partners.  SROI asks you to evidence the results, and then to adjust them depending on your context, and the contribution of others.  If you can’t work with a control group (comparing the people within your services to those without) you can at least ask, ‘what would have happened anyway?’  And ‘what else contributed to your experience?’  (technically these are called deadweight and attribution).

Thinking about partners in our SROI for a work-based learning programme at Museum of East Anglian Life helped us with the challenge that participants could get ‘stuck’ in their volunteering role.  This both blocked places for new people in need, and reduced the economic benefit to the state if participants didn’t move on to jobs.  Working with partners on an effective referral programme could solve the problem, without damaging the participants’ own wellbeing.

Been faced with so many ‘recommendations’ you don’t know where to start?

An SROI analysis is a decision-making tool.  Because the investment, and each of the different outcomes are quantified using the same unit (£), you can really see where the value lies.  You can also play around with the results, to test different scenarios for future plans.  This means you don’t have a whole list of recommendations that you don’t have either the time to implement or the information to prioritise.

We had an interesting result in Taking pART, which was an arts-in-libraries programme for people with mental health challenges.  Whilst we thought families were an obvious secondary beneficiary, in fact we found that creating an audience for the work would bring much more social value in raising awareness.  Coupled with the qualitative learning about a chain of events – that some families really just wanted a break, the evidence was persuasive for where to focus in the future.

Put an evaluation report on a shelf and left it there?

If you have, might it be for the reasons above?  Perhaps our favourite example of making evaluation useful, was with Suffolk Artlink’s Make My Day analysis that valued artists training care workers in care homes.  We learnt that just working with three residents with high emotional needs, creating real relationships rather than transactions, meant the home could break-even on their investment.  Everything else was a bonus.

Finally, anyone who tells you that that there is a right way to evaluate in these contexts is being fake with the truth (to mix my memes).  Evaluation is an art as much as a science (in fact, as a scientist at Chester Zoo told us recently, science is as much an art as a science).  As Einstein said, “logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get you anywhere”.

* We are.  It’s Social Value UK.

** We haven’t.  We really haven’t.


Mandy Barnett

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