Big inspiration from small charities

Small and micro voluntary groups and organisations (annual income of less than £100,000) continue to be a beacon of hope, providing help to communities while ‘everything else was closed’ during the covid-19 crisis.

As part of our work with Inspiring Impact, we’ve had 16 inspiring conversations with a selection of these groups across England. These conversations have brought to light the ways in which small charities and voluntary groups have adapted and reimagined their services in response to this pandemic. We’ve learned how they prepared their users for digital changes (like giving out wifi boosters or setting up online meeting platforms), how they quickly reconfigured venues to become covid-secure community hubs, and how they made quick decisions to direct services to those who needed them most.

Impact practice can get deprioritised in ‘normal’ times, let alone during a crisis. However, organisations have found they need some basic data to help them adapt. Many have still managed to collect information, analyse it and learn from it, to help them meet new needs and to deliver new services. Here is some learning from our inspiring conversations with people working and volunteering for small organisations up and down the country.

#InspiringConversations: Don’t wait to get it perfect

We may strive for rigour, but evaluation often needs to be proportionate – even more so during a pandemic.

Many of our interviewees focussed on collecting rough and ready, ‘good enough’ information. Often this was qualitative, allowing them to explore new needs in depth. Open interviews were also easier when exploring a situation groups knew little about – like that caused by covid-19.

Interviewees chose to prioritise, with some choosing not to collect outcomes and impact data during the crisis. For many, monitoring what they delivered, and to whom, was all they could manage – this was sufficient in the short term.

#InspiringConversations: Relationships matter, now more than ever

Being embedded in their community, with their ‘ears to the ground,’ meant that some groups didn’t need to carry out additional needs analyses because they were having daily contact with their users.

Other community groups collected informal data on emerging needs, building on relationships with service users, who often like and trust staff and volunteers. Regular observation and exploratory conversations, for example through end-of-session ‘free talk’, can provide rich information and work data collection into service delivery seamlessly and effectively.

#InspiringConversations: Creativity is key

The expansion of our online world has enabled charities to get creative, including when collecting information. Gathering feedback through WhatsApp groups is a direct way to collect data. Zoom offers quick and easy ways to carry out polls, gather reactions and do interviews with geographically-dispersed respondents. Other creative ways groups have collected information include making scrapbooks, keeping a ‘life in lockdown’ journal, using online data collection tools such as KoBo, SurveyMonkey and Google Forms.

However, the digital world is not accessible to all, and can be challenging and isolating. Recognising this, one of our interviewees provided both paper (hand delivered) and online copies of their survey.

#InspiringConversations: Building the case for support

Funders quickly responded to the crisis by providing money for coronavirus relief, extending existing funding periods and relaxing reporting requirements. Groups appreciated having to provide only basic information to their funders.

However, some groups will need to gather longer-term data to make the case for support after the covid-19 crisis. Some have proactively collected outcomes information, for example doing follow up interviews every couple of months or building scrapbooks and journals to show progress made during this time, to enable them to make a case for future support.

What we learned

We have found our inspiring conversations instructive, reassuring and encouraging, regardless of organisational size, location or type of work, to persevere with impact practice, even in the harshest of times, is impressive. Our thanks to all those who shared their stories with us.

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Shehnaaz Latif Shehnaaz is lead consultant for NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She has provided training and support to hundreds of organisations to develop their theories of change, outcomes monitoring frameworks, and self-evaluation processes.

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