Stuck in silos. No input in decision-making. Constrained by company culture. How can organisations get better at embedding and supporting social value roles so they can really make a difference?
We spoke to two leaders at Young Professionals in Social Value (YPSV) – Olivia Sutcliffe (Founder and Chair) and Holly Onstenk (Secretary and Steering Group member) – about the challenges individuals in social value roles are facing, and how businesses can up their game and make sure social value is properly integrated as a business function.
How do people get started in social value roles and what are the main challenges they face?
HOLLY: “Some people come into the role because they’ve got a VCSE (Voluntary, Charity, and Social Enterprise organisations) background. Some may be graduates who want to work in social value. Some may work within the organisation already and side-step into the role because they have a strong interest. But when they get there, they rarely have anybody senior with the social value knowledge to support them effectively or help them develop.
“In YPSV we have a lot of members who are working in project delivery. The strategic side is often left to senior managers, so they’re just told what to do and left to do it. That disconnect between the delivery and the strategic side is definitely one of the main challenges.”
OLIVIA: “In my previous role (in social value measurement), I worked with a lot of suppliers – I’d often find young people who were looking after social value on top of their normal roles as project managers, project officers, sustainability officers.
“Sometimes these were SMEs who’d had a contract with the council for multiple years. To win the work again they have to include a social value submission, so they send somebody off to find out what it is and what they need to do. It’s a lot of pressure and there’s not a lot of support out there at the moment.”
HOLLY: “I work in a consultancy so I get a holistic picture of social value from strategy all the way through to measurement – but that’s really unusual. Most people will just be tasked with delivery, or just one element. So unless they reach out and connect with other people in the sector they’ll be stuck with a very narrow understanding of what social value is. That’s why building networks is really important – employers need to give people the time to get out there and take part in events and groups that will help them develop that understanding.”
OLIVIA: “The lack of qualifications and training is also a massive issue that we've been talking about within the YPSV network. There are no formal social value qualifications, and training and resources can be so hard to find. We’re in the process of seeing what’s out there and what we can access for free or get reduced rates for our members.”
HOLLY: “There are so many people in social value-related roles who are working in a silo with nobody more experienced in a leadership position to learn from. So that external training becomes even more important. Not just to learn for yourself, but to upskill the people in your organisation too.”
How can organisations get better at supporting social value leads in having a bigger strategic influence?
HOLLY: “One project management consultancy we’ve been speaking to has a social value team, where there are a group of young professionals doing delivery, and a superior who is championing social value at a top level and managing the strategic side. Having that leadership and strategic influence makes a real difference.
“But you don’t necessarily need a team that big to make it work. If your social value role has a seat at the senior management table, and social value is embedded in your company’s culture, they can look after the strategic side, and the whole company becomes the ‘doers’. Your social value person is the one who tells them how it’s going to be done.
“But as social value is a developing sector, you often get younger people in those roles who might not have the confidence or experience to lead on strategy. That means it’s also about career development. How do we develop people to the point where they can have that top-level strategic influence?
“We’re in the process of putting together a mentoring scheme for YPSV where we match our members with people who have more experience, so we can start to bridge that gap.”
OLIVIA: “As social value professionals we really want to have an impact and make a change. We can struggle personally when we feel we are not making an impact, because we genuinely care about what we do. So the first thing I would say is stop to reflect and appreciate what you’ve delivered and the impact of what has been achieved so far.
“Then sit and make a plan for the future. What are your medium-to-long term goals? I would recommend connecting with other people in the industry, whether that be through a networking group, or just through LinkedIn – social value professionals are so welcoming – and try and get ten minutes to talk about where you want to get to, and how realistic it is.
“Then always go in with a well thought out plan. Cost it out. Do the pros and cons, look at alternatives, and most importantly communicate what the impact will be. Give evidence, use examples of other companies if you can.”
“I really believe that you’ll naturally progress in your social value career if you’re authentically yourself and you're passionate about delivering meaningful social value for communities. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for opportunities to shadow people to learn skills you want to develop.”
“As social value evolves I think we’ll see that progression doesn't always look like making your way up to director level as we see in other established industries. We’ll also see absolutely incredible, stand-out individuals who are delivering social value on the ground who understand their local community and know exactly how to meaningfully deliver this which will be so valuable to businesses, but more importantly to communities.”
HOLLY: “They need to support them by giving them time to network outside of the organisation. They should also be helping them access training and CPD as that becomes more widely available.
“But the main thing companies need to do is to give social value professionals a seat at the table – give them input in strategic decision making so they can drive real culture change.”
We’re about to launch the CHY Social Value Academy, the first phase of which will be free resources developed to upskill anybody new to social value. If you’re interested in hearing more about the Academy, you can sign up for updates here.