Social Return on Investment and youth work

Most youth workers – I hope – would say the work they do is valuable. On the other hand most youth workers we speak to will say “you can’t really measure the difference we make” and certainly few agree that it’s possible to put any sort of monetary value on youth work and the impact it produces.

The Social Return on Investment (SROI) Networks mission is “to change the way we look at value”. It promotes ways of valuing all changes that people experience together – instead of separating costs and income from the changes to quality of the community, environment and individual’s life. We believe this approach has a lot to offer youth work and young people.

As a result, Jeremy Wyatt, from Hall Aitken will be speaking at the UK Youth National Conference on May 14th on “valuing youth work” – explaining how SROI can help in exploring and communicating the value of youth work. And with decreasing budgets and increasing demands for accountability perhaps looking at social value will become an important tool for youth workers and young people in the future.

At its core SROI is a process of answering a series of key questions:

  • Who changes as a result of what you do?
  • How do they change?
  • How do you know?
  • How do you know that you were responsible for the change (or at least part of it)?
  • How important is the change?

As an example, Sunderland Youth Villages is an innovative approach to creating mobile youth activity events. Our assured SROI report showed that it created a social value of between three and six times its costs. Benefits included increases in healthy lifestyles, in confidence and in residents feeling safer in their communities. Of course it isn’t always possible to find the time or resources to produce an assured external report like this one. But beginning to ask and answer the key questions above can help any project to focus on what makes the most difference and begin to prove to others what this difference is. If you want to know about SROI get in touch with us or go to the SROI Network website www.thesroinetwork.org.

Facilitating self-evaluation

External evaluations can be expensive but in reality much of the cost is because external researchers gather and process information on your behalf. Focusing on self-evaluation can not only save you money, but can also massively increase the amount of learning you get from the process.

Of course you may need some support with thinking through and planning the evaluation process but you can probably learn most of this from an experienced evaluator with facilitation skills in a workshop - at a fraction of the cost of a normal evaluation report. An article in the November 2011 issue of the international journal e-Organisations and People explains a bit about how we have developed such an evaluation service to meet current demands for increasing accountability but reduced budgets. You can also find out more at www.indicatesupport.co.uk which includes a downloadable tool to assess your evaluation and readiness.

Outcomes framework for youth work

In February of this year Graham Stuart MP, chairing the education select committee into young people’s services, commented “It does seem an extraordinary failure that you [the youth sector] can’t make a better fist at explaining the difference you make”.

In fact there is a variety of evidence about the effectiveness and impact of youth work but it is in different formats, uses different types of language and is often written in very academic and difficult to digest terms.

Responding to this problem The Young Foundation, as part of the DfE funded Catalyst Network, are working on developing a common framework of outcomes for youth work.

This will not be a silver bullet that will solve these problems overnight. But it will provide a common language that should, over time, mean that an increasing amount of evaluation and self-evaluation material can be shared, understood in a common language and combined to provide a much stronger evidence base for youth work.

The draft outputs of the work can be found at www.youngfoundation.org and The Young Foundation are currently considering feedback from across the sector before finalising the framework. We are strongly recommending to our clients that they adopt the framework. It will always be possible to argue with any such framework and to suggest alternative words and definitions. But the reality is that there is much greater similarity to the different approaches currently available than the language they are written in suggests. Adopting a common framework with its inevitable compromises will be an important step forward in developing more high impact youth work and demonstrating just how valuable it is.