Social accounting is commonly used in the context of business, or corporate social responsibility (CSR), although any organisation, including NGOs, charities, and government agencies may engage in social accounting. Social Accounting can also be used in conjunction with community-based monitoring (CBM).

Social accounting emphasises the notion of corporate accountability. D. Crowther defines social accounting in this sense as “an approach to reporting a firm’s activities which stresses the need for the identification of socially relevant behaviour, the determination of those to whom the company is accountable for its social performance and the development of appropriate measures and reporting techniques.”[2] It is an important step in helping companies independently develop CSR programs which are shown to be much more effective than government mandated CSR.[3]

Social accounting is often used as an umbrella term to describe a broad field of research and practice. The use of more narrow terms to express a specific interest is thus not uncommon. Environmental accounting may e.g. specifically refer to the research or practice of accounting for an organisation’s impact on the natural environment. Sustainability accounting is often used to express the measuring and the quantitative analysis of social and economic sustainability. National accounting is a narrower usage in concentrating on the nation as the aggregable unit of analysis and economics as a method of analysis.

Social accounting, a largely normative concept, seeks to broaden the scope of accounting in the sense that it should:

  • concern itself with more than only economic events;
  • not be exclusively expressed in financial terms;
  • be accountable to a broader group of stakeholders;
  • broaden its purpose beyond reporting financial success.

It points to the fact that companies influence their external environment ( some times positively and many a times negatively) through their actions and should therefore account for these effects as part of their standard accounting practices. Social accounting is in this sense closely related to the economic concept of externality.

Social accounting offers an alternative account of significant economic entities. It has the “potential to expose the tension between pursuing economic profit and the pursuit of social and environmental objectives”.[5]

The purpose of social accounting can be approached from two different angles, namely for management control purposes or accountability purposes.