The civil society strategy: What it says about impact and evaluation

This blog post is one of a series on the civil society strategy. For an overview of the strategy, please see our post on What you need to know

 

The government’s newly launched civil society strategy has been thoroughly reviewed now by colleagues at NCVO – on funding and finance, volunteering, public services and regulation. But what, if anything, does it offer from an impact and evaluation perspective?

Evaluation?

Charities need to be able to understand, measure and articulate the difference their work makes. This is vital for funding, learning, making better decisions and for assuring the public.

But if you’re looking for evaluation and impact within the new strategy, you’ll need to look closely. Though some positive areas exist – as I’ll explore – we’re disappointed by the lack of focus on evaluation, especially when the charity sector needs to do more to overcome the significant dent in public trust and confidence in charities.

As my colleague, Aidan Warner notes, ‘we clearly haven’t recovered’ from the public’s collapse in trust and confidence in voluntary organisations. We rank higher than cabinet ministers, but lower than the woman or man in the street. This isn’t as bad, but it isn’t where we need or want to be.

Social value requires evaluation

The strategy is big on social value. We’re pleased that the strategy has heard ‘how hard it can be to clearly and quickly demonstrate the impact of work.’ From commissioners, the strategy notes that ‘too often charities or social enterprises undersell their social value, failing to properly account for the “additionality” they bring.’

This strategy recognises the complexity and importance of evaluation – of knowing what was achieved and why – in order to provide better services and outcomes for society. This is positive and an acknowledgement of the struggles many voluntary organisations face.

While the paper notes both perspectives: that charities find it difficult and that commissioners want more evidence, it is difficult to see what actions will be taken to support voluntary organisations – especially smaller ones – to do this.

A common measurement

As Shaun says, if you’re a young person, this strategy is for you. Our friends at the Centre for Youth Impact are doing excellent work on support for the youth sector.

This strategy commits to building an ‘evidence base for the effectiveness of youth services’ particularly through the Youth Investment Fund (a £40m fund for UK youth organisations). But as we’ve noted for other areas of the strategy, this isn’t new stuff: the Youth Investment Fund launched a year ago.

We welcome the ambition to establish a:

…shared impact measurement framework for open access youth provision that uses data to improve services, measure outcomes, and predict likely impact.

We strongly support this type of effort for charities to work in partnership and learn from each other. This builds on work in other sectors, particularly health and social care, where numerous agencies work together under common frameworks to measure change. From our own work in this area, we know it can bring significant benefits to service users and organisations involved.

But it is incredibly hard and often requires new systems and changes to service design so that measurement can happen in the same way across multiple organisations. We’re hopeful that the Centre for Youth Impact will be able to fully integrate qualitative evaluation within its shared measurement framework, rather than relying only on quantitative measures (which may be irrelevant or unhelpful in understanding the lives of young people).

Participation

We’re pleased that the strategy champions individuals being actively involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of services they use. This is something we promote in our own evaluation work. The establishment of a national Young Commissioners and Inspectors Group to promote young people’s participation in national youth programmes is positive, but seems like a reinvention of the wheel.

New strategy, new cash?

Well, probably not. On evaluation, the strategy notes:

  • £40m as part of the Access Foundation’s 2018-2023 strategy to ‘develop enterprise models’ that grow earned income and ‘build resilience.’
  • £1m from the Youth Investment Fund to support 90 projects in evaluation.

The Access Impact Management Programme, along with other sector partnerships like Inspiring Impact, are good for the sector, as the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities attests to. We want to see continued, and greater, support for organisations to measure impact and create a culture of learning – both for those seeking social investment and voluntary organisations who want to demonstrate their difference better.

Supporting the social sector

We believe that voluntary organisations, in the newly dubbed ‘social sector’, achieve great things for individuals, communities and society. But there exists a huge inequality in evaluation skills and knowledge in our sector. This often disadvantages smaller voluntary organisations, especially in winning public contracts and securing funding or investment. We’re trying to overcome this by bolstering our free resources on outcome and impact measurement.

Good evaluation helps social sector organisations articulate their social value, respond to the public’s expectation of greater transparency, and share learning across sectors. To do this, voluntary organisations need support – and money. We welcome the positive tones in the strategy, but unless you’re a youth organisation, it is light on commitments. We look forward to stronger actions coming from the government as the strategy moves to implementation.

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Alex Farrow Alex Farrow is a lead consultant in NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. He leads on supporting voluntary organisations to strengthen their strategy and evaluate their impact. Alex is particularly interested in charity governance and strategy, having supported The Diana Award to set their new five-year plan, and is currently a trustee of GirlGuiding UK.

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