Spring 2005 eNewsletter - Social Costs: What Are They and Why Do We Care?
A Note from REDF’s New Associate Director, Joanna MessingIt's an exciting time for me as I step into the role of Associate Director at REDF! I have been involved with REDF for over eight years in a variety of roles, including as an MBA Farber Intern in 1998, then as a portfolio member when I became the Business Development Coordinator of Youth Industry. Following this I joined NESsT, an international nonprofit supporting the development of social enterprises worldwide. These experiences, as well as previous work with small business development, will all guide my work with REDF, which includes strategic planning, human resources, knowledge management, and measurement activities as well as portfolio and field development. It's an honor to be part of an organization which has consistently provided insight and leadership to the field on issues such as defining and tracking social costs, addressed by Portfolio Director Cynthia Gair in this newsletter.
Social Costs: What Are They and Why Do We Care?Vital Information, Good Practice
Imagine this: You’re an experienced building repairs manager who has just started an exciting new job overseeing a non-profit-owned building repairs enterprise. The enterprise has been designed to train and employ chronically unemployed individuals, and to do so as profitably as possible.
Costs at the enterprise seem high to you. At the same time, during your first five weeks on the job, you notice that the enterprise uses more supervisors per site than is typical in private sector building repair businesses. After spending several days working side-by-side with two key supervisors, you realize that additional supervisors at the sites are necessary to maintain competitive quality in both the enterprises’ services and in the training that employees receive.
Welcome newcomer, you’ve entered the world of social costs!
Are Social Costs OK?
‘Social costs’ refers to costs that are necessitated by having a particular social mission. In social enterprises with an employment mission, these costs are often related to providing the extra training, supervision, and support that enable individuals with significant barriers to employment to become successful employees. In social enterprises with an environmental mission, the social costs might be related to materials or technologies that are not yet mass-produced and so cost more than those already in use. Whatever the specific social mission is, incurring social costs is not an accidental matter; it is a by-product of doing social mission work. Social enterprises are set up to accomplish special tasks and those tasks generally cost extra money.
Identifying Social Costs
Distinguishing social costs from regular business costs is not always easy, and generally requires experienced judgment and periodic updating. We advise thinking of it in this way: “If a cost would be incurred by a similar for-profit business, consider it a regular business cost; if a cost is incurred for activities that are needed in order to accomplish a social mission, consider it a social cost.” REDF has helped social enterprises estimate their social costs with a variety of approaches. Some have used industry benchmarks together with observations of their own workforce to estimate which of their costs are regular business costs and which are social costs. Some have conducted snapshot time studies to answer questions like “how much time does it actually take employees to accomplish specific tasks?” Some have brought in third-party experts to help make estimates. Like most analysis of financial information, a balance needs to be struck between the level of detail and accuracy, the amount of effort it takes to perform the analysis, and the value it brings to managers.
Why Do We Care?
Why do we care whether a cost is a social cost? In our work with social enterprise, REDF often hears “we just want to know if our total revenues cover our total costs.figuring out what the enterprise’s social costs are isn’t going to change what the enterprise’s total costs are.” We agree that an analysis of costs won’t in itself change the costs, of course. But it’s usually necessary to dissect an enterprise’s total revenues to know more about what the business dynamics are and what options are available. Similarly, more in-depth analysis of costs is part of figuring out the puzzle of how to make a business work. An analysis of social costs adds valuable information to categories like “manufacturing costs” or “production costs” in giving managers input for making decisions and directing strategy. No one would advise running a manufacturing company without knowing which costs are generated by the company’s manufacturing activity. Similarly, no one should expect to run a social mission enterprise without assessing which costs are generated by its social mission activity. This information can be used to raise funds targeting the social costs or to guide any cost control measures implemented.
Is doing the analysis worth the work?
Although the analysis required for estimating social costs takes some time initially, the time spent on it can pay off.
In several cases, the social costs of a nonprofit-run enterprise were being absorbed by its parent agency and didn’t show up as enterprise costs. Until this was rectified, agency and enterprise managers didn’t know the true costs of their enterprise. They thought it was more profitable than it was, and did not understand why their agency overhead costs had increased. In one food service business, an analysis of costs showed higher food wastage costs than industry experts considered “normal”. Further investigation revealed that though good controls had been put in place, the extra waste was unavoidable as long as the enterprise continued its on-the-job training and transitional employment strategies. Agency leaders assessed the financial implications and decided to accept these additional “social costs” as a standing, predictable cost of implementing their social mission strategy. The enterprise’s manager was able to plan for the part of wastage costs that would be unavoidable. Upper management was able to gauge the enterprise’s financial and social mission success more accurately. Although the bottom line profit was not changed, management knew more about what its financial performance/social mission trade-offs were, and could plan accordingly.
In some nonprofits an analysis has helped management decide which parts of an enterprise to expand or contract. In others, having a credible estimate of social costs has helped managers with goal setting and budgeting, enabling them to sort out and compare costs to commercial industry standards.
Whether you’re a social enterprise newcomer or a social enterprise old-timer, estimating social costs is good practice.
Welcome to REDF’s Farber Fellow
We are delighted to announce that Melinda Su has joined REDF as our 2005 Farber Fellow. During her year with us, Melinda will focus on providing business assistance across REDF’s portfolio. Her projects include an assessment of new markets, a product profitability analysis, and a cost systems review.
Melinda received her MBA from Stanford and has had significant management experience in both the private sector and the nonprofit world, most recently as the Director of Raising A Reader — an early literacy initiative started by the Peninsula Community Foundation, which she grew into a national social enterprise.
Back to eNewsletter archive»