Gary Williams, Worker with Children and Young People, Scottish Methodist Church
Currently the context for third sector youth work in Scotland is probably more challenging than it has been in the last thirty years. The notion that youth work can demonstrate incredible ‘bang for the buck’ is much needed and the Social Return on Investment approach (SORI) seems to offer a helpful way forward in identifying the value of youth work. The idea that youth work stakeholders and funders can be enabled to identify proximal cash values in relation to the outcomes they value and require seems to make sense. Furthermore it would seem to hold true regardless of whether the stakeholder is an individual with needs or a custodian of a publically funded budget, a business donor, or the chief executive of a grant-making body. Almost all of these individuals are responsible in turn to local residents, voters, tax payers, trustees, business owners and shareholders. It appears to be a legitimate tool for the times.
There are some acknowledged areas of weakness within the approach, for example final SORI scores can’t really be compared across a range of organisations in order to find the highest performing or most ‘efficient’.
Despite these areas of acknowledged weakness, SORI seems to be regarded favourably and an increasing number of agencies appear to be adopting it, not only a pragmatic and necessary contextual response, but also as a means of evidencing organisational competence and efficiency.
However I want to suggest that the real problem with SORI is not in relation to weakness in design, but in fact is more about how it helps us to consider utility (based on achieving what is wanted or required), instead of worth.
Money is a medium of transaction. If we think about youth work in terms of transaction then there would seem to be a number of buyers and sellers in the market place. The budget holder for youth crime prevention in an area will seek a targeted, reliable and efficient intervention; a local church may live with a context which is less reducible in terms of outcomes for young people but its youth worker may still feel compelled to justify a salary and get ‘more spiritual young people committed to making a better world’, and a funder may want to know that self esteem has improved for young people on the margins.
When push comes to shove, what the budget holder wants is less crime, what the church wants is more spiritual young people and what the funder wants is improvement in the self esteem of young people in need. So what’s the problem? Isn’t this a symbiotic relationship with winners on all sides? It certainly looks like that on the surface but just imagine for a second that, for a mysterious and complex set of reasons, not one of these interventions worked; that is the outcome that was required did not happen. The conclusion which could be drawn is then that the intervention was worthless.
Now it’s hard for most of us to imagine a youth work process that is worthless as it’s an attack on our competence, and we are also becoming increasing adept at finding additional value in interventions beyond what might have been initially considered. Furthermore, the examples cited are deliberately provocative and simplified. But none the less, try to imagine somehow that you ended up with something which was in large measure volatile and incongruous and maybe even bleak! Now can we remember volatile and incongruous and bleak? A very small number of young people I have worked with have committed suicide, been murdered or gone on to commit violent crime. Was time spent with them worthless? Was it devoid of utility? Was it meaningless? I don’t want to write these things down as nil or negative returns as part of a wider SORI analysis. Sorry but no! Young people are worth more than that.