Sarah Stone: If you want people to value your business, get involved in what's good for society

What is social value? It's a timely question, because we're hearing about social value more and more '“ and seeing the emergence of a new sector that could generate billions of pounds of sustainable economic growth for the UK.
Sarah Stone is Founder and Director of social value agency SamtalerSarah Stone is Founder and Director of social value agency Samtaler
Sarah Stone is Founder and Director of social value agency Samtaler

In an age when humanity is facing enormous challenges and governments are trying to do more with less, social value is a way for businesses to take a lead in solving some of the world’s biggest problems.

Think climate change, inequality, poverty, pollution, population displacement, and competition for the world’s rapidly shrinking supply of natural resources. These are all big issues that aren’t going to be solved by governments in isolation. It will take strategic partnerships and a joint approach between the public, private and third sector to make any kind of headway. As Chancellor Philip Hammond said in his address to the Conservative Party Conference last week – the capitalism of the 21st century will look nothing like it did in the 1800s.

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The Scottish and UK governments are playing no small part in driving the social value agenda through their use of legislation governing public sector procurement. The Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 and UK Government’s Public Services (Social Value) Act 2013 both require public bodies tendering contracts to consider how these contracts can provide enhanced benefits for the communities and areas they’re being delivered in.

In other words, we’re increasingly seeing public sector buyers no longer making purchasing decisions solely on the basis of value for money. They are now choosing their suppliers on the basis of whether they also provide value for society.

In order to win these contracts, ­suppliers need to understand how to create social value and community benefit offers that truly benefit society.

I set up my own social value agency in 2017 after a career in government helping to design and communicate policies to tackle some of the UK’s most fundamental problems.

As a former member of the policy unit and external relations adviser to then Prime Minister David Cameron, we worked to develop policy commitments that would deliver long-term, sustainable benefit to society and the economy. The starting point was identifying the most pressing issues, researching them and then proposing workable solutions.

It was a process that involved ­consulting many experts and talking to multiple stakeholders to understand both the big picture and the grassroots issues. This inspired the name of my agency, Samtaler – the Danish word for ‘conversation’ – because speaking to people and ­having conversations is a fundamental part of my approach.

I believe that businesses should take the same approach to creating social value that policy makers take to creating policy. For any corporation considering social value, the trick is finding the right projects to invest in, delivering what you promise, and then reporting back on the benefits.

Once you’ve identified the key social issues facing your industry, sector or local community, talk to the public and third sector organisations working in those communities to address these issues. Ask them what they need and then think about how your business might be able to help them.

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For example, if you’re a heating ­supplier, could you support a ­charity that helps members of the community who are struggling with fuel poverty? If logistics is your business, could you incorporate more social enterprises into your supply chain? Food manufacturers can support charities working to combat obesity. And recruitment agencies can partner with organisations helping to tackle unemployment – and the skills gap amongst the most disadvantaged.

Getting your social value offer right will inevitably require investment – but the payback in terms of ­winning contracts, credibility and positive public perception is potentially huge.

The reverse is also true – businesses that fail to embrace social value risk damaging their reputation and ­losing out to competitors. Especially in a world where news is instant – and even people who have no intention of ever buying your products can have a significant impact on your organisation.

If businesses as a group can work together to take on this mantle, there’s another big win – avoiding costly legislation when governments inevitably wade in to tackle problems by force.

Think the sugar tax, minimum alcohol pricing and the landfill tax (to name just a few).

Social value has the power to transform the relationship between businesses, communities and the third sector. And when it is well thought-out and carefully delivered, everyone – suppliers, buyers, communities and consumers – can benefit.

Sarah Stone is founder and ­director of social value agency Samtaler,