UK churches create £12.4bn a year in social value

Exercise classes, support for asylum seekers and refugees, community meals, parent-toddler groups, food banks, employment support and job-hunting, credit unions, benefits advice — there are over 40,000 churches in the UK and together they host over 35,000 community projects.

To anyone familiar with the way that in recent decades churches have increasingly become ‘community hubs’ as well as places of worship, it will perhaps be the scale of activity rather than its nature that is surprising.

A recent item in The Guardian (Churches tally up their value to society – at £12.4bn, 18th October 2020) makes this very clear. The National Churches Trust (NCT) has just published House of Good: The economic and social value of church buildings to the UK which reveals for the first time that the social value created every year by church-based projects and activities is equivalent to £12.4bn a year.

There were two things about this that surprised me.

The first was this. I was quite surprised that an organisation like the NCT would adopt a method for measuring its social value that relies on attributing financial proxies to a range of activities and using underlying formulae to combine these into an overall financial equivalent. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. In many ways a financial proxy measurement of social value is perfectly suited to very large organisations (or perhaps more accurately groups of organisations) where there are a multiplicity of hard-to-compare social value outcomes.

But the second thing surprised me more, and that is that the valuation exercise was undertaken not by Social Value Portal Ltd, which has been promoting its ‘National TOMS’ social value methodology since around 2017, but by State of Life, a new entrant into the social value measurement marketplace, a Community Interest Company only launched on the 4th March 2020 — “with the help of David Knott (Director at the Office for CiviI Society in DCMS) and Lord Gus O’Donnell” [previously head of the Civil Service], its website says. And no, I don’t know what that slightly curious formulation means either. The new CIC is a joint venture between Jump Projects Ltd and Reason Digital.

I’ve no doubt that financial equivalence methods for measuring social value are what will eventually come to dominate because in many ways it is the only method that overcomes the thorny issue of ‘comparability’: how do you compare or combine — or even meaningfully report — social value of different kinds? Financial proxies at least provide a headline figure that makes people sit up and take notice — even if they have no idea how that figure has been arrived at.

Anyway, this is an interesting development in social value — both from the NCT’s particular perspective, and from that of there being new entrants into the measurement marketplace. I would dearly love to know how much the National Churches Trust spent in consultancy support because this really has been a huge undertaking and must put it in the forefront of social value measurement and reporting, up there with major national charities and huge non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs).

And on the subject of NDPBs, one can’t help but wonder whether State of Life  has been set up specifically to corner this particular marketplace.

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Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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