A quarter-century of evaluation

Charities Evaluation Services (CES) turns 25 this month – a grand old age to be proud of. Following our successful merger with NCVO last year we are different, but very much still here and with the same deep passion for the voluntary sector as ever.

The NCVO CES team has been reflecting on the last 25 years of charity sector evaluation and impact assessment – and setting out a vision for the next 25 – in our new article Evaluation past, present and future. It’s astonishing how far the sector has come.

Suspicion and ‘evil managerial control’

In CES’ pioneering early days, we couldn’t even name our clients publically, as being associated with evaluation might arouse suspicion, implying some sort of failure on the charity’s behalf. Now our clients ask for kite marks and accreditation, a public CES endorsement of their evaluation efforts.

And when I started at CES 16 years ago, there were frequently people sent on our training courses who would argue that monitoring and evaluation was a form of evil managerial control, designed to oppress them and their clients. Now tiny charities phone us up wanting to discuss the best way for assessing causality, or whether they should be considering highly technical approaches like Social Return on Investment (SROI).

Change takes time

Those of us who have been building evaluation and impact capacity in the sector for several decades know just how long this change takes. For many organisations, implementing an outcomes and impact approach is a massive piece of cultural change.

If it were just systems and processes, that would be easy. Our team could go into most charities and develop them a basic theory of change and evaluation plan pretty quickly, on the basis of their documents and a quick phone call. But we’d certainly not get it 100% right, and we wouldn’t be bringing stakeholders with us on the journey.

People take time to understand the purpose and benefits of evaluation and impact assessment, and that understanding comes through involvement. Most evaluation work is also improved by the deep involvement of key stakeholders.

Culture change in action

Many years ago I worked with what is now a multi-million pound turnover, award-winning charity. Back then, it was a small and rather old fashioned organisation, with staff and users equally institutionalised.  It took the new and outcomes-focused CEO years to change the culture of the organisation, to get staff and users focused on change and moving on rather than maintaining clients in a kind of stasis, but they got there in the end.

We have also been admiring the recent Citizen’s Advice impact report, which is a really good piece of work. It takes time to get this far. Their impact manager Tamsin Shuker reflected recently that it has, in reality, taken them about eight years as an organisation to develop the skills internally to do this, but that the organisation is now reaping the benefits in terms of their investment in internal evaluation skills.

Our vision for the next 25 years

Of course we still have a long way to go. While many charities and voluntary organisations have embraced evaluation and impact, some have not left the starting blocks. So where do we want to go next?

As we look forward to another quarter century helping the voluntary sector evaluate and improve its impact, here’s what we want to achieve in the next 25 years.

  1. Outcomes and impact are central to everything a charity does, including all their planning and day-to-day work. Evaluation skills are seen as core job skills.
  2. Even the smallest organisations are able to collect data on their outcomes, albeit at a proportionate and realistic level.
  3. A focus on real-time data ensures that voluntary organisations get the information they need, when they need it, to enable them to make well-informed decisions to guide their work.
  4. The sector shares its findings and learning.
  5. Voluntary organisations have access to the support and information they need. They are able to choose the most proportionate, realistic and appropriate methodologies for their work, and are supported in this by their funders, commissioners and investors.
  6. Qualitative methods of impact assessment are stronger and sharper. While the sector is also clearer about how and when to use experimental methods, qualitative methods are seen as providing a real alternative.

Thanks for being part of the journey so far and here’s to the next 25 years!

Read the full article: Evaluation past, present and future

Find free resources to help you on your impact and evaluation journey on the CES website.

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Sally Cupitt is Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She been a consultant at CES for over 20 years. She specialises in independent evaluations of voluntary sector organisations, research and helping organisations to develop and implement monitoring and evaluation frameworks and systems.

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