Last November youth unemployment in the UK broke the 1 million barrier. As the recession rumbles on, the job market continues to shrink, and public spending cuts – to youth services, post-16 education and training – are not letting up. In this climate the work of charities in encouraging and inspiring young people, particularly the most vulnerable, to develop and enter employment is more vital than ever. But they are under increasing pressure to prove their value, at a time when their income is most stretched.
Without better evidence, the youth sector as a whole, and ultimately young people, will lose out. This sector is receiving larger cuts than other areas of services – something the Education Select Committee has linked to a lack of evidence and the ‘extraordinary failure’ of the sector to explain the difference it makes. Is there anything that funders can do to help charities working with young people to prove their value? NPC believes that some of the challenges can be met – without spending a lot of money – if charities and funders work together on measurement.
Almost all the charities NPC speaks to are trying to measure their impact in isolation. They rarely talk to peers about the challenges they face or share their approaches or expertise. Yet measurement is one area where charities really can collaborate successfully (see NPC’s report Improving prisoners’ family ties, published last year). Charities working in similar fields often have similar approaches and are trying to achieve the same aims, so why not develop the processes and tools they need for measurement together?
Funders can play a powerful role in encouraging this. However, at present, most funders – like charities – develop their approaches to monitoring and evaluation in isolation. A charity with ten funders is likely to receive ten different monitoring forms, with ten sets of requirements, outputs and outcomes to measure. There is no shared understanding of what commissioners and funders want to see in terms of measurement. Charities express frustration at the lack of clarity and consistency around measurement expectations, and how many varied approaches created substantial reporting burdens for them. They often spend large sums of money on tools and evaluations only to be told by commissioners that ‘this is not the right type of evidence’.
NPC’s latest report looks at measurement for charities in the NEETs sector. Working with a group of charities, we found a promising level of consensus around the key outcomes to measure, and a willingness to collaborate to develop a shared framework. From the funders we spoke to, we also found an interest in working together more closely to reduce reporting burdens on charities. Could a group of funders tackling the same issue get together and develop a common set of outcome measures for the charities that they support? Could they work with charities to design something that is proportionate, and measures the outcomes that charities feel are important?
NPC believes there are many potential benefits for both charities and funders in working together on impact measurement. A shared approach to outcomes could reduce the burden on grantees by harmonising reporting requirements; it could encourage collaboration by showing how charities contribute to shared goals; it could help to generate comparable information on impact and aggregating this data could help to build evidence for the sector as a whole. A group of funders and charities working together to develop a shared outcomes framework could provide a powerful voice in speaking to statutory funders that impose unrealistic reporting burdens – the chief source of frustration for the charities NPC spoke to.
Of course, it is not all as easy as this. There are challenges in ensuring that any joint approach is flexible enough for diverse organisations and does not stifle innovation. Charities and funders all have distinct approaches. However, our research suggests that there is willingness to develop some consensus on what to measure and how it should be done, rather than charities individually battling on in the dark to prove their worth. There is a role for funders in leading this process, ensuring that reporting is developed in a way that is proportionate, sets clear expectations and benefits the sector as a whole.
Matt van Poortvliet is a Senior Consultant at NPC and author of the report Measuring Together: Impact measurement in the NEETs sector