As part of King’s College London’s partnership with Social Enterprise UK, the national body for businesses with a social or environmental mission, King’s Business School hosted a masterclass on creating and measuring impact.
Professor Ute Stephan, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Dr Kamini Gupta, social entrepreneurship specialist and Lecturer in International Business & Comparative Management, contributed their research-led findings. Providing their first-hand perspectives were Gary Stott of the UK’s first social supermarket chain Community Shop and Elliot Harrison of Recycling Lives which uses its commercial operations to support social programmes for offender rehabilitation, food redistribution and homelessness support:
How can a business go about understanding how to create impact?
Professor Ute Stephan: You need to start with understanding the change you want to make. And you need to appreciate that social impact is ultimately about changing people’s behaviour.
Businesses can use two different strategies to achieve change. Deep-level strategies create lasting social impacts, and require a lot of close work with the people you want to create impact for. They require understanding the three fundamental drivers of any behaviour change – motivating people to change, building their skills and creating opportunities so that they can change. It also requires organisations that are set up to work in a particular way, for instance, so that you can offer genuine opportunities for empowerment. Social enterprises often excel at creating deep level change, for them it is natural to have an ear on the ground and work closely with their beneficiaries.
Or you can mobilize a surface-levels strategy, for instance, create nudges. These can have wide impact, fast, and can be achieved by almost any kind of organisation, but their impact won’t last forever. Once the nudge is removed, people often fall back into their usual ways. Put simply, if there is no longer a convenient recycling bin say at a station that reminds us to separate our litter, we’ll use the existing bin and stop separating waste.
Gary Stott, Community Shop: with Community Shop we spent about a year trying to understand the levers we could use. We’ve ended up with a deeply engrained habit of always asking ‘do a thing, so that…?’ If we’re not happy with the ‘so that’, then we probably don’t do the ‘thing’.
We also discovered that asking the right question matters. We started with the question of ‘how can we move food around from where it is surplus, to people who need it?’ But we realised that ‘why do human beings need food?’ was a better question. Food is about more than calories; it’s also about communities.
Finally, we need to be aware of the systems that we are operating; the dysfunctional food system, the welfare system, and the very fast-moving retail system. These all influence food insecurity and we need to understand those dynamics.
Elliot Harrison, Recycling Lives: Recycling Lives was born from a family-run scrap metal recycling business. Our founder Steve Jackson had grown the family enterprise and been approached to support a local homeless charity in Preston. He’d already had interactions with homeless and disadvantaged people who would bring scrap into the yards to earn a living. He saw that while people were able to find beds for the night at the charity, the step from there into permanent accommodation and settled lives was less well supported. He knew that work, giving stability and purpose, was central to that.
Providing that support became the business’s social goal, and understanding the link between people leaving prison and becoming homeless was a breakthrough moment. The business first set up a residential facility for homeless men, supporting them into jobs with the business that could take them into their own home. It then set up a prison employment programme to employ offenders in recycling waste electricals to develop work skills and save enough cash to establish themselves when they were released. This tackled a root cause of homelessness, and we have built from there.
What are the challenges with measuring impact?
Kamini Gupta: Useful measurements get to the core of what you are trying to achieve. For a purely commercial business, measurement of value is somewhat easier: if people don’t want what you offer, they simply won’t pay for it. But if you are doing something with social aims and do not have a similar market-based feedback loop, you have to go that extra mile to establish that what you do has the effect that you want.
However, there is a lot that social enterprises can learn on measurement from commercial businesses. One very useful idea is that of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which comes from the ‘Lean’ methodology that’s used by a lot of start-ups. That means small experiments, from as soon as you’ve got something resembling a product, to test whether your customer finds you useful. Running small-scale experiments from an early stage can be a useful alternative for small social enterprises that cannot yet afford or support a full Randomised Controlled Trial.
Another challenge is to be aware of your unplanned impact and to factor that into your overall assessment. For example, if you are an organisation in India that provides water treatment at a well in the centre of a village, it is likely to prohibit usage to low-caste individuals. It’s easy to assume that you are increasing clean water provision and have achieved the desired impact, but at the same time, you are also entrenching social exclusion and widening inequality. If your measurement is going to be useful, you need to take that into account too.
Elliott Harrison, Recycling Lives: we use our data and the data that’s publicly available - for example on the cost to the public if someone reoffends - to understand the social savings that we are delivering. But some of the information that’s harder to encapsulate and communicate is more powerful: how do you put a figure on helping someone re-establish some stability after a family breakdown has made them homeless? We hope that we’ve given people what they need to make that stability permanent, but to know that, we need to stay in touch with them. As we’ve grown, we’ve used our Customer Relationship Management system to help us do that.
How important is the way that you communicate social impact?
Gary Stott, Community Shop: It’s really important, because if you get it wrong you can cause damage. We focus on what’s strong about the communities and people we work with, not what’s wrong. Funders and media might respond to clichés about ‘fixing’, but the people who use your services can end up feeling used. Ultimately, they are in charge of their own lives, they are the ones creating the impact.
King’s College London became a member of Social Enterprise in 2018 and now prioritises procurement of goods and services from social enterprises. You can read more about our Socially Responsible Procurement Policy here.