Utilité sociale/Social Impact

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"There is no single, consensual definition of social value. However, it is possible to distinguish two approaches. The first, which is simplistic and subsidiary, is deduced from legislation on the taxation of associations and subsidised employment. An initiative or activity is deemed to be socially useful if it meets social needs that are not covered by the market or public authorities, and is aimed at people in need of integration or who are socially vulnerable.

The second, more general definition refers to the capacity of an economic organisation with a social purpose to carry out its project and/or fulfil its mission effectively and to make the most of the external effects of its actions.

This definition does not specify a priori the criteria for social value, as a project produces multidimensional effects. Jean Gadrey [1] distinguishes five components:

  • economic (efficiency, social costs avoided, new activities, response to unmet needs, etc.),
  • social (inclusion, equal access, diversity, social cohesion, etc.),
  • political (co-construction of the general interest, active citizenship, popular education, participatory democracy),
  • ecological and territorial (activities and jobs that cannot be relocated, short circuits, etc.).

In France, the concept of social impact differs from that of social value in that it considers the results and impacts of an activity independently of the intentions and values of those responsible for it, its purpose, its modes of governance and the status of the organisation that implements it. In the context of social impact, it is no longer a question of associations differentiating themselves from the private for-profit sector, but of following its organisational contours in order to maximise the often quite specific effects of their activity, often without observing the co-lateral secondary effects or externalities. It is often the systemic and/or cross-disciplinary dimension that is lost in the impact approach. Impacts tend to be confused with results as soon as the external evaluation attributes them to the company's actions alone and homogenises them through a monetary and quantitative assessment." [2]

According to Bassi [3], the term "impact" doesn't consider the worth linked to the presence of the organization itself in the community and only of its activities/ programs/services.

Social Value measurements need to establish the why, how, for whom, with whom through research or collectively, identifying objectives, criterias, dimensions, indicators, recommandations, etc. The dissemination of the results needs also a specific approach if it aims to be useful to the organism itself or to the community involved. It can be the trigger for a collective process on the aims of the project, on what is worth to be done together and on our shared values.

The UNTFSSE (Un Task Force for SSE) associates deeply social value to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Equivalent concepts

Utilité sociale, social impact, social added value (plus-value sociale), social return,

History of the concept

"The term "utilité sociale (social value)" emerged in France in the late 1990s in the non-profit sector, and at the time it referred to the need for non-profit organisations managing services to highlight their contribution to society and their contribution to the "general interest (intérêt général)".

  • Demonstrating the social value of their actions and results became a growing requirement of public authorities and citizens alike, as the non-profit nature (or limited profitability) and disinterested management of voluntary organisations no longer sufficed to justify specific public funding.
  • In the 2000s, social value was claimed by many actors and institutions as: a marker of a non-statutory approach' to the SSE field (e.g. the APES progress approach); a label for solidarity-based, fair trade and ecological practices (e.g. fair trade); a criterion for a new company status (e.g. the SCIC); a funding criterion for calls for projects from local authorities or foundations; a subject of research and an evaluation method.

After the financial-economic crisis of 2008, the need of impact evaluation methods both by for profit and SSE organizations was stressed. The concept of social impact gradually spread and came to compete with that of social value under the influence of new players (social entrepreneurs), financiers (foundations, private investors), new public measures (e.g. social impact contracts), international bodies (e.g. the OECD's social impact task force), consultancy firms (e.g. KPMG) and business schools (e.g. the social entrepreneurship chair at Essec)."[4]

Public policies associated with this issue

  • In France, three public policies have shaped the public authorities' approach to social value: taxation of associations; subsidised employment policies and the law on the social economy (2014). Article 2 of this law broadens the criteria for social value: "providing, through their activity, support for people in vulnerable situations", plus "fighting inequality", "educating citizens", strengthening "territorial cohesion", "sustainable development" and "international solidarity".
  • According to the Italian Law on Third Sector: “Social impact assessment means the qualitative and quantitative assessment, in the short, medium and long term, of the effects of the activities carried out on the reference community with respect to the identified goal.” (Law 106/2016, Art. 7, Subsection 1, Letter o).
  • In Spain, REAS, Red de Redes, has created a unique social value tool, called "La ESS enseña el corazón. Auditoría/Balance social" since 2014. Although it translated badly in English (social audit can be used by any type of business), it is an assessment tool intended first for REAS members, but also to SSE initiatives in general. It is a self-diagnosis, based on a questionnaire and a set of indicators narrowly linked to their Charter SSE principles but also to the Sustainable Development Goals. The results obtained by the organisations are shown on the map of responsible consumption through mercadosocial.net, and each year, with the analysis of all the aggregate data, three reports are produced: A general report with all the data, a report with a feminist perspective (with gender data) and another with the annual evolution by sector of the Mercado Social indicators (with data on internal consumption and inter-cooperation).

Main networks working on this issue

In France, the Réseau des collectivités Territoriales pour une Economie Solidaire (RTES) has developed social value assessment for SSE public policies.

In Spain, the REAS, Red de Redes platform "La ESS enseña el corazón. Auditoría/Balance social"


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  1. Gadrey J. (2006)., « L’utilité sociale », in : J-L. Laville, A. D. Cattani (Dir.) Dictionnaire de l’autre économie, Gallimard, Paris, p.641-651.
  2. Definition from Appui à l’émergence et au développement d’initiatives d’économie solidaire, MES, 2023
  3. From “Social Impact” to “Social Value”. A holistic approach to the SSE Worth’ Measurement, CIRIEC n°2022/06
  4. from Appui à l’émergence et au développement d’initiatives d’économie solidaire, MES, 2023