Is social impact at a more embryonic stage than its cousin, natural capital? Is measurement the future? These were questions discussed on the social impact roundtable at The Crowd last week.
The debate was energetic and expansive. The other delegates on the table represented firms from a wide range of industries – NGO, finance, professional services, retail, infrastructure, construction; a real mix. All had worked on different aspects of projects or programmes to reduce harmful social impact and/or boost positive impact on society.
Despite this diversity of experience and context, there was a considerable amount of agreement on common themes. People were unanimous on the necessity of working towards this goal, and factoring in social impact to decision-making processes as standard, but also on the substantial challenges around data and reporting that are holding back progress.
Projects are being signed off by boards and implemented – often driven by client demand – but achieving this and getting real buy-in is a huge challenge. Much of this stems from the difficulty in making a clear and compelling business case, without readily available or commonly accepted frameworks through which to report it.
There are robust, widely recognised and constantly updated protocols for measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions, energy, waste and water. Their outputs can be readily compared and used to review past operations, model future outcomes and assess projects. However, the lack of standardisation in the arena of social impact means teams often have to use completely different indicators for each project, making monitoring harder and communication less clear.
These challenges are significant, particularly when the outcomes of projects are not necessarily seen in the near term or easily separated from other influences, and given the difficulty in a using a standard unit for social impact. Nevertheless, there is a lot of work that is pushing things in the right direction.
What can be done?
Leaders in sustainability are pioneering approaches to valuing their impact. For example, through Total Contribution, The Crown Estate evaluates its economic, social and environmental impact. As more projects are implemented, similar projects can be compared and benchmarks created. Importantly, established sustainability reporting frameworks like the GRI’s G4 are evolving to incorporate an increasing array of social impact data.
As sustainability analytics and benchmarks, as well as scoring methodologies like GRESB and CDP, have evolved and uptake has accelerated, so will equivalent approaches for social impact. This will improve communication and enable social impact considerations to be embedded to business-as-usual.
At Carbon Credentials, we help our clients manage, analyse and use a rich variety of data sets, reporting to a host of frameworks, standards and benchmarks. We particularly relish the challenge of incorporating diverse data sets and helping organisations get value from them, so please do get in touch to discuss this further.
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