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Going back to basics can clarify the approach to social value

21st October 2022

Confusion can often pervade the social dimension of sustainability, in particular a lack of certainty regarding which actions deliver truly positive social outcomes and value. 

As a result there is a tendency to favour reporting of inputs and outputs (what’s been done and what happened as a result), which alone does not fully demonstrate success and can lead to restricted or formulaic results.

Quantification of social outcomes is not straightforward, let alone desirable. The change one person experiences from an intervention can be completely different to the change experienced by another. 

Measurement frameworks provide some consistency and benchmarking (albeit based on assumptions and generalisation), but standardisation means that not only can the same project be reported in various different ways depending on which framework or methodology is used, but the experiences of those involved cannot adequately be captured. 

A return to the fundamentals of sustainability: people, planet and profit reminds us all that the social dimension of sustainability should always be about people and improving their lives.

The starting point is asking critical people-centric questions, such as who are our key stakeholders or beneficiaries? How can we reach them to ask them what their individual needs, concerns, challenges, behaviours and influences are? 

Beneficiaries or stakeholders are likely to be different depending on the entity, project or programme. Stakeholder groups may be categorised as internal (an organisation’s employees or a building’s occupiers) or external (customers, members of the wider community, supply chain). Engagement with stakeholder groups is likely to vary depending on many factors such as proximity, accessibility, and spheres of influence. 

Internal stakeholders are typically easier to identify, however this doesn’t necessarily make the engagement process any less intricate. Investing time, effort and expertise will help tease out how an organisation’s operations or a project’s objectives are likely to affect its internal stakeholder groups and vice versa. 

When it comes to external stakeholders, the further away these stakeholders are from the project, place or people, the harder it may feel to identify, access and engage with them. The solution can involve partnerships with local groups, charities or social enterprises. These groups have knowledge of local issues and can access the people experiencing them. 

These groups can help interventions reach the targeted beneficiary and also help fully integrate social value, so the impact lives on beyond the initial project window. This means the real value to society of interventions can be measured and properly evaluated over time. 

Whether it’s an organisation looking at the social impact of its operations on employees or a project team looking at the social value contribution of an asset or project, taking a deeper systemic approach is key to generating positive outcomes. 

Some considerations to take into account in a “people-first” approach to social value.

  • Start with your stakeholders – identify and map out stakeholder groups and their individual needs, concerns, challenges and influences. Factor in challenges around access and communication.
  • Be aware of the difference between capturing ‘efforts’ and capturing ‘effects’ and be consistent. A truly purposeful approach goes beyond efforts and effects and strives to identify impact. 
  • Avoid the trap of recording what’s convenient and strive towards recording what’s meaningful. Embrace non-quantitative means of capturing outcomes and impact.
  • Be prepared to re-design programmes if they’re not delivering the outcomes intended or needed. 
  • Don’t feel you have to go it alone; partnerships with groups on the ground are an invaluable source of knowledge. 

Maria Garcia is a principal sustainability consultant at Savills 

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