A contractor’s perspective of social value

Our head of the Willmott Dixon Foundation gives her insights into social value

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.

Community investment (or, as it was called in days gone by, charitable works) has been part of our culture since our business was established in 1852. Being privately-owned, we’ve had the freedom 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. 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 until recently we’ve never really sought to quantify the benefits. So recent research has been illuminating.

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. We are seeing a correlation between the 80% of our people who have taken part in community activities in 2016/17 (yes, 80%!) 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 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 to those businesses who say that they don’t have the time, the resource or the money for social value activities, I’d say – think again. Delivering a community investment programme might just be thing that moves your business performance from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

Sarah Fraser is Head of the Willmott Dixon Foundation, which guides, monitors, coordinates and reports on community investment for the Willmott Dixon group of sister companies.