The charity sector is working flat out. It’s not an easy time and yet so many people need its services. Not just to help out in the cost of living crisis but to be trying new things – new ideas which might one day become key elements in better public services – just as how innovation by charities gave rise to Sure Start and new approaches to tackle mental health.
Money is of course an issue – even more so now. Our sector got pretty battered by Covid. We were in fact spared from a major rise in charity closures that many feared. Charities tend to try and hang on, just doing less, unless they have no choice. But an excellent, methodologically sound paper by Professor John Mohan of the Third Sector research centre and others revealed that during Covid ‘the median charity experienced a 13% real decline in annual income” with slower growth charities and smaller charities suffering even more of a decline. They conclude that charities lost more during the pandemic than in the 2008 Great Financial Crisis and the austerity that followed it.
These crises show why everyone in the sector should be trying to understand where they should put their efforts and resources so that they and the sector as a whole have the biggest impact. In truth that is not always how charities think. There are a variety of reasons – including the fight for funding; a lack of infrastructure, analysis, or data; and many other things mitigate against boosting productivity and value for money in our sector (words that are rarely used in polite charity world society). But understanding what makes impact and how we get there must surely be our aim.
Despite the challenges, we are seeing encouraging progress. The work we have done over many years to help charities think all this through using theories of change, including ‘collective theories of change’ that cover a sector, and evaluate their work using measurement frameworks really help. More data has become available, and is being collected, aided by digital technologies and approaches. The 360 Giving initiative gives valuable insights into where funding is going so others can judge where they can fund the gaps. There are also good signs that the Charity Commission recognise how crucial the data they collect is to understanding change in the sector and will try to move quicker in making it available.
We’ve also seen massive steps in using government administrative data to help charities assess their impact. The Justice Data Lab, that we got going with the Ministry of Justice some years ago, has done this for assessing interventions to reduce reoffending. Now, excitingly, and after years of discussions, the Employment Data Lab is up and running and about to do the same for employment programmes.
And we are seeing more data that helps charities and funders identify need, sometimes including pretty real time data (as our local needs data dashboard tries to). Meanwhile the ONS are looking at putting together more data on civil society (in the form of a ‘civil society satellite account’), an important development in taking the sector seriously in national accounts and statistics.
But we do need more. That is why we have argued over the last few years for some kind of body that could bring all this material together. We called it a Civil Society Improvement Agency and published a full paper back in 2019 – but the name is secondary. A Civil Society Improvement Agency would provide a gateway for charities to access curated expertise, data, research, and training. It would expose the sector to new issues and ideas on things like understanding the environment they are working within (e.g. data on need, funding, the number and the types of charities in their area etc.); good governance; improving measurement and evaluation practice; utilising evidence to design interventions. It would undertake ‘deep dives’ on issues of particular concern to the sector; identify organisations with mutual interests to encourage collaboration; and help the sector understand how critical agendas, like digital and diversity, can be successfully embraced. In our 2019 report we address issues of funding and the relationships to the existing sector bodies (and to think tanks like NPC!).
We therefore welcome the similar idea for a Civil Society Catapult Centre floated by the Law Family Commission. We hope a version of it will be in their soon to be published final report.
The charity sector really matters. It can’t be run like the private sector and many of the mechanisms and strategies for improvement in the public sector are not right for it. But it deserves to be taken seriously and to be supported in doing its best. As we approach the next general election, all parties should engage with this agenda.