Last Wednesday I spent the day at the NPC Ignites conference in London. The event brought together a range of voices from the charity sector, and it was great to be part of the discussion about some of the challenges facing the sector and how they can be overcome. From my perspective it was reassuring to hear that many of the things we champion at Impact Box - effective use of technology to drive efficiency, a focus on meaningful data and insight, building technical capacity within the sector - were being spoken of as solutions. For me a few key themes emerged.
Charities working across the UK are not evenly spread geographically. Dan Corry from NPC presented data that illustrated the regional discrepancy (which is noticeable even from the limited data available from the Charity Commission). Generally speaking, the more affluent regions have more charities operating in them. The reasons for this are potentially complex but the problem is compounded by a second issue that was emphasised less on the day, namely that some of the most acute social problems in the UK are increasingly found away from our big cities. This means that many of the places most in need of the support that charities can provide are those where the infrastructure on which charities rely - whether that be transport connections or pools of volunteers - is sorely lacking.
Overcoming this requires charities both to undertake a rigorous assessment of where they are most needed, and to innovate in terms of delivery to meet this need. Whilst not a silver bullet, technology can help. Some of our partners are demonstrating how: The Access Project has managed to expand its programme supporting disadvantaged young people to get into top universities into a number of towns in the East Midlands by embracing online tuition, allowing it to use volunteers from other areas they work in to support students hundreds of miles away. In terms of mission, this means they can now work in an area where rates of progression to university are about half of what they are in London. If we want the sector to have impact where it is most needed we have to do more to encourage this, whether by making technology more accessible or by altering the funding landscape to reward organisations working in certain areas.
Even six years ago when I first started grappling with questions around evaluating impact in the charity sector, I found myself frustrated at how evaluation was often viewed as an exercise in verifying what you already knew (I’ve written about this before). I was therefore delighted to attend an NPC Ignites sesion on evaluation which specifically discussed the pitfalls of this approach, and how it can undermine learning at an organisational level. Several participants lamented the culture in the sector which makes it unthinkable to recognise that what you are doing isn’t yet working. Changing this culture would certainly be a step in the right direction.
We should also be prepared to think harder about what form evaluation should take. Too often I see organisations trying to run before they can walk, attempting sophisticated impact evaluations of interventions that are not ready for it. When it finally arrives, the end result is often inconclusive (or worse), and in some cases the organisation ends up abandoning attempts to quantify impact in frustration at the fact they can’t meet some evidential gold standard in terms of sample size or methodology. It doesn’t have to be like this. Formal evaluation should be some way along the ‘impact journey’; in fact, unless a charity has established clear, meaningful delivery metrics that are reviewed frequently and has a coherent outcomes framework that is monitored by all staff, I’d say it should not even be thinking about a full impact evaluation. The sector would, quite frankly, be more impactful now if a significant portion of the time and money spent on impact evaluations over the last 10 years had been directed instead to helping more organisations get these more fundamental things in place.
Towards the end of the day the conference ascended into more theoretical climes, with discussions on how charities could ‘harness the future’ and take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. There was concern expressed that in general charities have been unable to be part of the conversation around things like AI and other emerging technologies. I would suggest that the problem is more fundamental than that: not only has the charity sector been unable to shape the debate, it has largely been unable to utilise technology in anywhere near the way the private and even the public sector has.
Changing this requires us to understand what really powers the sector: people. Collaboration with tech companies and recruiting digital-savvy trustees is all very well, but unless we get more people with hard technical skills actually working in the charity sector it will continue to lag behind. When I think of the graduate software developers helping Uber refine its surge pricing algorithm or the data scientists spending their days wading through data on pay-per-click advertising, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder at what could be achieved if we could attract more of these people into our sector. To do this would probably require re-evaluating what is considered acceptable salary costs and doing some hard thinking about how to create roles that would appeal. It might not be easy but the potential rewards are huge, not just for charities themselves but for the wider society they all ultimately serve.