What is social impact?

Social impact is the effect an organization’s actions have on the wellbeing of the community.  It is significant, positive change that addresses a pressing social challenge – like crime, depression, unemployment. Creating social impact is the result of a deliberate set of activities with a goal matching this definition.

Arts and culture activities are often participatory.  In the context of measuring social impact, participatory means active, collective and collaborative activities where people are learning and doing, co-producing or co-creating in some way that often addresses a need, or a problem relating to challenges in society.  Measuring the impact of participatory activities enables us to illustrate how a need or problem has been addressed and demonstrate the social value arts and culture has within society.

This toolkit is designed to help you through the process of measuring the social impact of your work.  It can also help you to understand what social impact and social value is and why it’s talked about nowadays in order for you to feel part of those conversations.

Why is measuring social impact important?

Mental health, social isolation and unemployment are all pressing and immediate issues for society.

Arts and culture can help solve some of these problems, particularly socially engaged participatory work.  Arts and culture provide the tools to help alleviate social, economic and environmental challenges and enhance wellbeing. Heart of Glass has a history of working in marginalised communities in St Helen’s to improve people’s lives through art.   www.heartofglass.org.uk

We, in the arts and culture sector, need to share the evidence of this impact with business, philanthropists, social investors and commissioners to make more creative problem-solving work happen.

What do we know about 21C society’s challenges?

Here are some stats and facts with examples of where social action and creativity make a difference:

Mental health:

  • Up to 20% of women develop a mental health problem during pregnancy or within a year of giving birth, most commonly occurring is anxiety; it is estimated that perinatal mental health problems cost the NHS and social services around £1.2 billion annually (LSE Report 2014)
    The innovative non-verbal music led programme Babigloo Music for Babies has succeeded in supporting mothers with anxiety
  • The overall cost to the NHS amounts to £162 million each year for all self-harm episodes presenting to hospitals in England.
  • The effects of Parkinson’s include depression, apathy, feeling stigmatised and isolated, discomfort, decreased mobility
    Pavilion Dance South West Parkinson’s DanceScience is leading the way with their neuroscience, physiotherapy and movement programme to address these challenges https://www.pdsw.org.uk/dance-devs/parkinsons-dance/

Social isolation

  • The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years (Age UK 2018, All The Lonely People)
  • One in three young people suffer from loneliness (Red Cross, Co-op, Kantar, 2016) and 65% of 16-25 years old reporting feeling loneliness at times and 32% feeling lonely “often” or “all the time” (Majoribanks and Bradley, 2017).
  • Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all (Age UK 2016, No-one should have no one).
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Valtorta et al, 2016) (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006)
  • Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
  • 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day; 25% disabled people feel lonely every day – (Sense: Campaignforloneliness Research)

The economic and social costs of unemployment include personal costs (lost income), costs to government (lost tax revenue) and costs to society in general – social problems, lost GDP, poverty, crime, vandalism, imprisonment and homelessness.


So – there’s plenty of room for improvement across these areas and the arts and culture can and do contribute enormously to that.

Illustration by Beatrice Simpkis