Summary: Throughout history, social economy enterprises have not only been the subject of evaluations, they have also been the initiators of new practices that correspond more closely to their realities and aspirations. The evaluation of social usefulness (utilité sociale) movement, better known in France, is one such experiment.
In France, authors on the left of the political spectrum have historically promulgated the notion of recognition and evaluation of social usefulness, preferring this over the notion of impact measurement. Social usefulness (utilité sociale) can be defined as follows:
Social usefulness is any action which is aimed at satisfying needs not normally or sufficiently considered by the market and which is carried out for the benefit of persons requiring compensation for a health, social, educational or economic disadvantage. (Gadrey, 2004, p. 120, our translation)
According to Gadrey (2005), the concept was “forged to ‘defend’ the solidarity economy against certain threats, or to promote its development based on favourable rules” (our translation). Hence, the concept emerged in a context where it served as a tool to counteract accusations of unfair competition levelled against certain associations or social economy enterprises. Its official appearance in France dates back to the decision of the Council of State of November 30, 1973 concerning the Clinique Saint-Luc case. The Council decided that the two usual criteria for designating the nonprofit nature—disinterested management and reinvestment of surpluses in the activity—no longer sufficed to justify that the association managing this clinic benefits from tax exemptions. To ensure unfettered market competition, it added a third criterion: “the normal beneficiaries of the institution must benefit from its disinterested management, either because the conditions are more advantageous than those of the market or because the services rendered are not provided by the market” (Gadrey, 2006, p. 239, our translation).
The challenge, as identified in France, would be “to draw a boundary between the solidarity economy and […] the lucrative market economy. The notion of social usefulness must therefore be used to mark a territory by claiming specific legal and fiscal regulations for essential goods and services” (Gadrey, 2005, our translation).
The term “social usefulness” has gradually emerged to characterize the SSE [social and solidarity economy]. Beyond the term, it is a question of identifying the “supplements,” the “added value” of the actors in this economy, and what it “does to its territory,” particularly compared to capitalist economies. (Branger, Gardin, Jany-Catrice and Pinaud, 2014, p. 4, our translation)
Moreover, it is also an approach that aims to distance itself from the top-down evaluation by administrations. In a context of budgetary restrictions, top-down evaluations are perceived as possible threats to funding, which can lead to problematic competition between organizations with a social mission. The adoption of this concept by social economy associations and enterprises can thus be seen as a reaction to the recent emergence of a “market of evaluators (consulting firms, schools and universities) who produce arguments for selling their [supposedly] independent evaluations, and who prefer to deliver these on a turnkey basis rather than paying attention to the process and consultation” (Branger et al., 2014, p. 6, our translation).
But while some see social usefulness evaluation as a bulwark against poorly adapted social impact measurement, others increasingly see it as being synonymous with social impact measurement:
One reason for the debate over whether to speak of social impact rather than social usefulness is the idea that the former focuses on reductive quantitative indicators. In fact, these two evaluation approaches are similar and approximate one another as the tools are refined. (L’atelier ‒ Centre de ressources régionaux de l’économie sociale et solidaire, 2013, p. 8, our translation)
This might explain why even people such as Hélène Duclos, author of a seminal reference guide in the field (Duclos, 2007), define the evaluation of social usefulness as a synonym for social impact measurement, or more precisely as an “evaluation approach developed by social and solidarity economy actors [that] allows social enterprises and social and solidarity economy actors to identify, measure and report on their impact social” (Duclos, 2016, our translation). Will this strategic inflection of definitions and vocabulary make it possible to develop a French model of social impact measurement, or will the specificity of this constructivist-inspired tradition be dissolved in the dominant Anglo-Saxon model? Only the future will tell.
In a text published in December 2020, Avise, in France, discusses the similarities and differences between these notions of social usefulness and social impact, before concluding that even if the former is more encompassing than the latter, the two notions are resolutely moving in the same direction rather than opposing each other.