Why social value is the cherry on the cake - not the cake

In my first article for Buy Local Buy Social, I outlined how social enterprises and charities can use the social value they deliver to gain a competitive edge on winning public contracts - with practical guidance on how to focus on the buyer’s needs.

Social value is delivered by a wide range of organisations - often unknowingly - with SMEs increasingly leading the way by helping to achieve positive outcomes such as local job creation, apprenticeships, use of local supply chains, sustainable procurement and engaging with hard to reach groups. Companies such as Hiut Denim - whilst not a ‘social’ enterprise - have a responsible approach to business that delivers huge local, social benefits within a commercially sustainable model.

As a purpose-led organisation - such as a charity, or social enterprise - with a clear mission to create social value, you want to talk about that mission and the impact you are having as much as possible. After all, that’s why you started. So, when an opportunity to bid for new work comes along you make your mission, your social impact, the core of your proposal. Put it front and centre. Blow your trumpet to tell your prospective client how fantastic you are, and how much greater impact you could have if you won. Right?


Tempting, understandable, but wrong.

Why? The reason is really very simple, and is one of the the biggest mistakes many bidders make, which is to talk about themselves too much.

When you’re bidding for new work, it’s not about you. It’s about what you can do for the buyer.

Too often bidders are so keen to tell the buyer all about themselves and their story, that they forget the purpose of the bid process - to allow the buyer to evaluate and choose a solution that will solve a problem they face.

Your bid must be credible in showing how you will help the buyer first, and only then introduce topics like how you can create social value within your solution. Don’t make your solution to their problem look like an afterthought.

Which leads on to another popular mistake among social enterprise bids - not spending enough time on the basics of your solution for the buyer. The social value you can create is the cherry on the icing on the cake that is your offer. It’s not the whole offer. Bid opportunities arise because the buyer has a problem that they need to fix, and that problem is rarely only the social value (or lack of) created by their supply chain.

Fundamentally people (including those in buying organisations) buy a product or service they like and trust. Even socially driven or ethical organisations like Riverford Organics, Hiut Denim or Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen would fail if their core product was poor. Regardless of their mission would you keep buying fruit and vegetables from Riverford if they tasted bad? Or jeans from Hiut if they wore out easily? Would you return to the restaurant that served you a bad meal? Whatever the story or purpose behind your venture, you have to get the basics right first and deliver what your customers want.

From a competitive point of view few evaluation marks are available for the creation of social value in most tenders. This means that whilst you could theoretically lose a bid against an equivalent proposal that delivers more social value, you are far more likely to lose because your solution either is not good enough or is too expensive. Use social value creation as a way to differentiate - don’t make it the main pillar of your proposal.

So, after discussing a few things you shouldn’t do, what approach to bidding should you take? Here are a few principles to follow.

Understand the context of the bid

Before you start either designing your solution, or writing your bid, make sure that you really understand why this opportunity exists. Why has the buyer gone to market? What’s wrong with the existing options? What’s going on in their business or market that may mean they need something different, or new? This information will help you to design a response that is relevant to the buyer.

Craft a unique win strategy

If you can’t identify what a buyer should choose you, how do you expect them to? Based on your understanding of the buyer, their needs and your ability to deliver, identify a handful (3-5 is ideal) of reasons the buyer should choose you - win themes. These should not only resonate with the buyer and differentiate you from your rivals, but you should be able to substantiate them. These are key themes that you can return to in your proposal.  

Set clear design principles for your solution

Every buyer’s needs are different, and based upon your understanding of the bid context and your win themes you can now set the design principles upon which your solution will be based. These are the ‘rules’ you set yourself that determine how you will deliver what the buyer has asked for. Once you’ve set them - stick to them, and make sure you can demonstrate that you have. Don't simply throw in soundbites here, for example “our people will be most important asset” without then being able to really show how that has impacted your solution to make that principle real.

Design an integrated solution

Following these steps will give you a framework upon which you can design a solution to solve your buyer’s problem. When doing so make sure that your whole solution - operational, financial, commercial, social, environmental etc - is consistent and works together. What you commit to in one area should echo in others. Don't leave gaps between these different elements of your offer, as this will cast doubt upon your credibility and understanding of your solution.

Answer the buyer’s questions

Now that you have a well-rounded solution, a view on why the buyer has gone to market and a clear winning proposition, make sure you don't ruin your hard work by not answering the right question in your bid response. Look for ways to weave in your win themes and understanding of the buyer’s position into your response, but first and foremost respond to what they’ve asked. As my tutors used to write in the margins of mock exam papers where I’d digressed - RTFQ.

Following this approach will give you a good foundation to bid successfully, helping you grow your organisation and deliver more impact. Don't use your social value as a lever when bidding - win the work because you have the right solution for your buyer, and use that success as a lever to deliver your social mission.