‘Part of what the Leave vote told me was to be more aware that parachuting into other people’s realities without consulting them is dangerous.’

These were the words of Sara Llewellin, CEO of Barrow Cadbury, at a recent NPC event, which discussed the role charities can play in healing society’s divisions. Many useful arguments were made and insights shared on the day. But perhaps the most important was the most uncomfortable—that all too frequently the views, experiences and values of those who work in charities differ, sometimes wildly, from the people they are working with.

How well charities represent their users, and meet their needs through the work they do, is something we at NPC have talked about before in various ways—particularly in relation to charity governance. But we’ve never tackled the issue at length, until we worked with feedback experts Keystone Accountability to produce our recent report User voice: Putting people at the heart of impact practice.

User voice (a concept that is by no means new to the charity sector) brings a level of insight into an issue or a solution that charity workers are unlikely to possess. The involvement of an organisation’s beneficiaries helps to ensure that activities are achieving the things that people actually want and need.

Our report draws on Keystone’s Constituent Voice approach to explore how charities can most effectively harness the views of users to improve their impact. We argue that user voice is a very important piece of the evaluation puzzle, and we explore how charities can involve their beneficiaries at each stage of the impact cycle:

  • collaboratively planning the desired impact of the organisation and how to measure it,
  • inviting users to deliver activities and provide feedback,
  • working with users to assess what user feedback about the service—and other impact data—is saying,
  • taking on board everything users have said to review and make changes accordingly.

While there are many organisations that are involving users at certain points, it’s less common to see charities engaging users at all of these different stages of their work. It’s clear that a wider culture change and strategic organisational approach is needed.

There are a few bright spots in the sector who are doing just this. Our report highlights some of them, including the work of CLIC Sargent, MAC-UK and Thera Trust. CLIC Sargent, for example, is a charity for young people living with cancer. It has recently appointed a young trustee to their board, who will help to shape the long- and short-term strategic goals of the organisation and provide an invaluable beneficiary perspective.

But involving users is not just about making services more effective, it’s also a matter of principle. At the event Sara Llewellin quoted the disability rights movement motto—which also appears in our report—‘nothing about us without us’. This phrase captures perfectly the importance of user involvement: that consulting beneficiaries is, fundamentally, about empowerment and dignity—two things many people feel they lack in our current society.

So if charities are to help heal the divisions that have come to light this past year, they must first bridge the gap between themselves and those they exist to help.

Download User voice: Putting people at the heart of impact practice

Catch up on what happened at our event Can charities heal the divisions in society?

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