Is it reasonable to expect small voluntary organisations to demonstrate their impact?

Is it reasonable to expect small voluntary organisations to demonstrate their impact? This was a question I was mulling on the train to Cambridge this morning, where I presented at Cambridge CVS‘ AGM. The question is typical of the debate we have in the office. We wouldn’t expect someone opening up a for-profit coffee shop to demonstrate their social impact when applying for a loan from a high street bank (which turns out to be cheaper than social finance, but that’s another blog). And so on – are we expecting too much from small voluntary organisations?

I don’t think that there’s a yes or no answer – but I feel strongly that if we don’t ourselves grasp the nettle of showing that we’re worth it, someone else will read the newspaper saying that we are not. And if we don’t seek to consistently focus on making the biggest difference – rather than just a difference – I think we’re going to struggle in the brave new world of good.

So, I spoke about some challenges and opportunities today in the presentation below. I feel pretty chuffed that a prolific (and serious) social policy blogger, Puffles, thinks I got the challenge about right. I hope he’s right – it’s not always easy to get right, especially as a membership organisation.

Thanks to James Barker, NCVO’s Impact Head Honcho for sharing some of his slides with me. James regularly delivers training on impact and his next course will be running at NCVO on 30 January 2014.

Looking for a fresh way to demonstrate impact?

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Find out more about Evolve 2015

The final slides show some (mostly small) charities who I think are good at communicating their impact – I wanted to end on some inspiration! The great thing about these examples is that they were mostly shared with me on the train on the way to Cambridge. (A former colleague didn’t call me Mr Just In Time for nothing.)

I think our best chance of making a bigger impact is by engaging with our users, supporters and beneficiaries – acting as a network. So, it was great to see NCVO’s network sharing their examples with me. In fact, I ended up being overwhelmed with examples – too many to use in the presentation. It makes me think that if these mostly small organisations can do it, so can others. So maybe we aren’t expecting too much. What do you think?

Here’s what our network said were some small organisations with a big impact

These were suggested by Dave Kane: Mexborough & Swinton Astronomical Society and Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society. As ICAEW award winners they’re clearly going to be good.

I like this: Greener Leith

The NOW project: the impact card on the right is brilliant. By the way, this was attached as as evidence of their impact in a tweet.

Simon on the Streets:

Their impact in a tweet was:

Comms guru Zoe Amar recommended The Child’s i Foundation:

They summed up their impact in a couple of tweets for me:

CALM have been shortlisted for, or won, numerous impact awards. Possibly more loud than calm though 😉

Here’s Mary Ward Legal Centre’s 2012 impact report, which uses case studies really well.

And here’s School Food Matters, which again goes beyond numbers in thinking about impact:

MAC UK is another impact award winner:

The Prison Advice and Care Trust communicates very well via its impact report:

I’m afraid that until today, I’d never heard of Riders for Health…but as a motorcyclist how could I not like this? Effective, simple infographics tell a great story:

Interval House from Toronto have a must-see impact report. I like that it includes a visit from the Easter Bunny…

And finally (for now!), the Microloan Foundation, which uses case studies to demonstrate impact:

Postscript: late additions I really like:

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

12 Responses to Is it reasonable to expect small voluntary organisations to demonstrate their impact?

  1. I think demonstrating your impact is important for any charity, of any size, because it helps to give you a sense of achievement and a way of measuring your success. In too many charities it’s hard to know whether you’re succeeding in your aims because the question of impact isn’t adequately addressed. The success of a for-profit business is easy to measure by looking at profit, but charities don’t have this luxury – we have to look to impact to measure our success (to ourselves as well as to funders, supporters, etc.)

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      Hi Kirsty
      Good points. For me, the key word here is measure. I fret that we’re setting the bar too high at the moment when it comes to impact measurement – there’s so much talk about RCTs and so on. Not enough about stories.

  2. Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

    Here’s a few replies via Twitter:

    @mickfealty @steviemcgarry think @karlwilding is right: focus on communicating. Don't be stressing over complex measurements & indicators.— Jude Doherty (@HiberniaRexMax) November 13, 2013

    @HiberniaRexMax Indeed. Focus unremittingly on building 'trust bridges' is how @whiteafrican puts it. @steviemcgarry @karlwilding— Mick Fealty (@mickfealty) November 13, 2013

    @karlwilding in an age of diminishing resources, the slide that stands out for me is the one about the investment of £1 and the impact— Riverside CA (@RCANews) November 13, 2013

    @karlwilding https://t.co/eDFSaviyKi— Sam CatBear (@samcatbear) November 12, 2013

    @karlwilding – Street Angels & similar patrol within night time economy of 120+ communities – see http://t.co/OumWANM2OI – low £ high impact— Street Angels – CNI (@cninet) November 14, 2013

  3. Daniel Robinson says:

    I think there’s something here in the not very snappy adage that there’s only one gold standard and that’s methodological appropriateness – you have to be mindful of what you are evaluating, when, why for whom, etc. and choose the tools that are appropriate. One on my concerns about the push for RCTs (which are generally a good thing) is that this potentially excludes the practice and value of much of the voluntary sector. I was at an event recently where a speaker described an RCT at £150k as being ‘dirt cheap’, which is an interesting perspective as I suspect that’s more that c.90% of registered voluntary organisations turnover in a year. Standards need to be rigorous, but there also need to be approrpiate.

  4. Good on Karl for raising this question. While yes, it’s good to demonstrate impact, we mustn’t forget how daunting expectations can be for small groups. It seems to me that as often as not the challenge is just encouraging groups to state briefly and in plain English what difference they make overall. A simple statement and perhaps a case study are more meaningful to more people than most figures and analyses of value, yet all too often we hear that groups worry that they need to come up with some sophisticated (and usually expensive) analysis.

  5. Paul Webster says:

    I think it’s very important to demonstrate impact.

    It’s good for the organisation delivering the service to be able to reflect on what it has achieved and good for the beneficiaries to look at their distance travelled.

    The one thing that needs addressing is the ‘one size fits all’ reporting method used by some funders and public sector bodies.

    If i’m a small charity I should need to complete endless reports and returns, I should be able to submit my impact report as a Podcast, a Youtube clip or even a series of blog posts or Facebook posts from people my organisation has helped. Often more powerful and more accessible for the funder to see the impact made.

    • Indeed, being proportionate is the key to a lot of this, as is being meaningful to various parties. For funders like the Big Lottery Fund, there are obviously challenges in matching this all up. We do want groups to reflect on what they’ve achieved — and to tell us and others about it. But telling us will generally really have to be squeezed into some sort of standardised format, such as the one-sentence statement of achievement I’ve mentioned.

      We’ve been considering how to find out more about some forms of impact that Awards for All makes. Now on the one hand we know that in general it makes a difference to groups, affects wider funding patterns and decisions and should build the skills and confidence of groups (even, we hope, if they’re not funded).

      The real challenge for us is in aggregating and making sense of so much potential data in a programme that can fund 12,000 projects in a year. We can do this by allocating projects to broad outcome areas, but that’s only part of the story. The real richness of project impact is something that groups need to be confident about understanding themselves. And perhaps part of our impact as a funder relates to how well we encourage groups to do that.

      What this means is that we’re all for Facebook pages and similar — it’s just that we don’t have the resources to read and aggregate the evidence there.

      The recent NPC report suggests that funder focus on impact (or at least funder impact) might encourage them to move away from responsive programmes, given our own difficulties with reporting and aggregation. That would be a perverse response, but it does show some of the real difficulties in managing what is still all too often a vague concept.

  6. Leah Levane says:

    ? can someone explain RCTs? I found the slides very helpful,. I am at the start of a new project and looking at baselines, etc. and have identified some possible performance indicators, but am also committed to collecting stories over time. I definitely want (and need) to be able to convey impact of the work and want to understand all terms, so I used to know about KPIs, etc. but have not heard of RCTs – unless you mean clinical Randomised Control Trials – but I cannot think that this is the case.

  7. Leah Levane says:

    Can you please explain RCTs? I found the slides very useful but unless RCTs are randomised control trials, I am in the dark and those sort of RCTs would not be appropriate for our very neighbourhood based community work.

    Many thanks

  8. Pingback: Small organisations with a big impact | VoluntaryNews

  9. Dave Taylor says:

    “Is it reasonable to expect small voluntary organisations to demonstrate their impact? ”

    I do indeed, but I have a caveat. Imagine a locality with lots of need, across the whole demographic that lives there. Imagine all the public, private, voluntary and social enterprise activity at work seeking to address that need. Now think of the time & effort spent by each of those agencies on demonstrating their impact, even though we all know that there may be significant dependencies and connections between the agencies and their interventions…in short how do you know its you alone that makes the differance & isn’t the connections between the totality of services (and their collective impact) more important than your own?

    I’ve been looking for a way to examine the strength of a locality, so one could assess how the totality of agencies at work add/subtract or do nothing to grow that strenght. Think a simplified (!) combo of the ABCD approach, SORI for a locailty and this: http://fieryspirits.com/page/exploring-resilience

    Its a vital debate, given that the austerity narrative is about reducing peoples dependancy on “services”and the continuing problems with commissioning. To sum up, It would be useful for localities to enable the agencies at work to share a “community strenght” framework for reporting impact & strategic planning, share their data and collaborate on solving the pressing local issues…

    One can but dream….

  10. Nick Temple says:

    For me, Karl, the key is proportionality.

    Should all charities + social enterprises think about how they measure + articulate their social impact? Yes. If you’re in this to make a difference, don’t you need to know you are actually making a difference?

    Does that mean they all have to do a fully assured SROI report or complex set of social accounts? No.

    So it’s about proportionality and expectations that are set at different stages of the journey – I quite like NESTA’s standards of impact reporting on this: See here