If you’re looking at social returns on investment (and I mean the social returns, not the financial proxies of social returns) then you get to the point where you start to wonder, what is the social value that is being created by all the amazing work that our partner projects are doing? And, come to think of it, what does everyone mean actually by social value anyway?
After all, those crazy kids in the financial world have been working on ways of articulating (financial) value for several hundred years. So as a sector, there’s no shame in the spending some time developing our understanding of social value.
If you look at any of the partner projects we are working with, there’s no question they create heaps of social value. But how do we account for it? How do we understand it? What means do you use to capture it, express it, aggregate it and (dare I think it), compare it? As a sector, we still seem to be stuck on a financial understanding of social value, mostly famously of course the SROI approach. (While I think the guiding principles behind SROI are useful, it does have limitations. If you haven’t read it already, Geoff Mulgan does a very eloquent job of articulating some limitations with the SROI approach in this insightful article, as well as discussing a number of other important issues http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/measuring_social_value )
Regardless of our view on SROI, most of us are still left feeling that social value is important, but wondering about what ways are there of meaningfully incorporating it into our work. The two most interesting explorations I have come across recently in this area were pointed out to me by Clare Reddington, of Pervasive Media Studio fame. Together they have highlighted that a). Value flows between people, is subjective and we have to have currencies for it (currency doesn’t have to mean money) and b).Part of our role in evaluation is working with these multiple currencies (that’s not as simple as it sounds).
Firstly there is Bill Sharpe’s work with the international Future’s Forum on Economies of life. (You can find the essays here http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/projects.php?id=31  and an application of some of these ideas here: Producing the Future: understanding Watershed's role in ecosystems of cultural innovation http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/projects.php?go=dl&id=31&file_ref=lrtuzszgwo 
Sharpe tells us about the multiple currencies that are going on at any one time and uses a brilliant example of a football game to express this. (If you want the full story please read the Watershed document above). Briefly, in a football game there are multiple currencies operating at any one time, the score is crucial as a way of comparing teams and a running account of the game as one example, but you wouldn’t take someone to a football game and get them to watch the score board. There’s a host of other value and currencies running alongside it for the people who come to view the activity in a game.
Secondly the metacurrency project http://metacurrency.org . One of its key players, Arthur Brock, spoke at Occupy Wall Street here http://www.artbrock.com/videos/arthur-brock-eric-harris-braun-speak-occupy-wall-st . Brock’s OWS talk in particular highlights that we all have the capacity to create value, and indeed are doing it all the time. We just lack ways of making the value exchanges visible and interconnected.
So, on a practical level the big takeaway for me from all these links is that one single approach to measuring the value that is created form all the amazing projects we work with is not something we need to be focussing on, and indeed shouldn’t be focussing on. Rather, we should be looking for the different ways to make the flows of value between people in projects visible (the different ‘current-sees’ as I think Brock would term them).
A great example of how to make these flows visible is this data visualisation for on the Southwark Circle project http://dharmafly.com/circleviz/  (this is a test example, the real one draws in dynamic information from the real project participants). It has a clear articulation of the changes it wants to make, and shows how these exchanges flow between participants. Not only that though. It’s not some dry project report that is static. It’s a brilliant exemplar of a monitoring and evaluation process that is dynamic, and continually informs project development.
So, I would say that understanding social return on investment involves understanding the social value that is created. To understand this you have to consider the currencies the different social values operate in, and map out the flows. Lastly it’s possible to visualise these very clearly using data visualisation.
The next step is to think about how these exchanges of value are part of the process of change that goes on in a project, and how to practically map that. Right now I am wondering if these value exchanges could be mapped onto a theory of change, and then used as part of a set of value indicators that could help aggregate findings from different projects.
The results of that will have to wait till another day though.