The Raven's Blog

09.10.17

Purpose with profit – a contractor’s perspective of social value

Sarah Fraser, head of Willmott Dixon Foundation, outlines the benefits of a strong commitment to social value when it comes to working with public sector organisations and leveraging greater value from contractors.

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues spoke at a social value event. She concluded her presentation with some facts and figures demonstrating the extent of our company’s commitment. Afterwards, a puzzled public sector procurement officer took her by surprise, asking, “and what exactly does your business get out of this?”  Her retort, “well, we are all human beings,” didn’t really seem to cut it. It made us think. 

Established in 1852, Willmott Dixon is a family-owned construction company. Group CEO Rick Willmott is the fifth generation to lead the business. Community investment (or, as it was called in days gone by, charitable works) has always been part of our culture. Being privately-owned, we’ve probably had more freedom than most to do things which do not contribute directly to our bottom line. From providing work experience opportunities to refurbishing community buildings; from mentoring young people facing significant life challenges to organising events and fun days; over the years, it’s something that we’ve become known for. 

Since the recession, with cash-strapped public sector organisations seeking ways of leveraging more from their contractors, we’ve become better at calculating the value of our contribution to society in order that we can better demonstrate to our clients the difference we are making. So I can tell you that in 2016, our 3,000 employees provided 889 work experience opportunities, carried out 775 mock interviews and mentored 630 young people. Around 98% of the recipients of these activities said they had a positive impact on them. The value of staff time, gifts and donations which Willmott Dixon contributed to local communities was equivalent to £711 per employee. 

But how does this benefit our business? We’ve always believed our “purpose beyond profit” ethos was a good thing, but we’ve never really considered most of the benefits until recently. We don’t yet fully understand the ways in which our community investment work supports our commercial objectives, but the research so far has been illuminating. Outlining what these benefits are may provide a greater understanding about social value from a contractor perspective, and give public sector organisations some ideas about how to get more from their contractors.

Making a difference

First and foremost, our commitment to social value helps us win work. It has been the deciding factor in a number of high-value bids and tenders. And feedback via our new client feedback portal supports what we have long believed – that it helps us build relationships too. It’s not too great a leap to think that it’s part of the reason why around 60% of our work is repeat business.

But there are other, more subtle benefits. Take employee engagement: with studies showing it can improve business performance by up to 40%, and retention by up to 80%, it’s the holy grail of the business world. In 2016 we saw a correlation between the 74% of our people taking part in community activities and those with higher levels of engagement. Many said they liked to work for a company which is ‘making a difference.’ In 2017 we investigated this further by asking questions about the impact of participation on our people. Results are still being analysed, but initial indications suggest a range of benefits, notably ‘getting satisfaction from helping others.’

A survey of our millennials found ‘working for an ethical employer’ to be top of their list of priorities when it came to choosing a job, and anecdotes from our recruitment team suggest that our focus on social value is a factor for many applicants.

Participation in community activities helps to develop our people. A good example is our Management Trainee Challenge. In 2016, fifteen trainees organised projects such as refurbishing community facilities, while providing work experience for homeless people and the long-term unemployed. Afterwards, they said they had developed skills vital to future career progression such as communication, organisation and leadership.

Social value helps to foster a culture of innovation. When we set our ambitious 2013-2020 impact target – to enhance the life chances of 10,000 young people – we didn’t have a detailed route map to success. We presented our people with the challenge, and asked them to come up with ideas. Their response and ingenuity has been amazing and we are comfortably on track to achieving it.

So how can an understanding of these benefits help organisations leverage greater value from their contractors? We hope the following points might help start a dialogue.

  1. Encourage your contractor to think of ways in which they can use their community programmes to benefit their own business – for example, to increase engagement, develop staff or build a stronger profile in local communities;
  2. Don’t prescribe. Instead, explain your organisation’s challenges, hopes and aspirations, and ask your contractor what they can offer. Good companies will want to build enduring relationships with you so will use their ideas and experience to develop bespoke programmes which meet your needs;
  3. Encourage your contractors to be ambitious – targets really do focus the mind;
  4. But don’t be afraid to review and amend goals in the light of subsequent knowledge – if something doesn’t work, collaborate to try something different;
  5. Longer-term contracts accrue more social value because they provide more opportunities for businesses to understand what is needed, learn what works and deliver more ambitious goals;
  6. Contract with companies which employ locally – their people will go the extra mile to champion causes close to them.

Social value is a complicated area. How do you judge one contractor over another, when each has a different definition of what social value looks like in practice? To get a feel for which are most likely to be effective, look for companies where social value is culturally embedded. Ask about their volunteering policy, and the percentage of employees which typically get involved. Ask which third-sector organisations they partner with. And proxy indicators can also be helpful. Are they a good employer? Do they pay their supply chain promptly? Are they members of industry groups committed to promoting social value and equality? 

We’ve learned over the years that the community programmes with the most impact are those developed through strong, productive relationships between the clients, contractor and stakeholders. The more we understand each other, the better we will be at delivering benefits to communities and society as a whole.

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