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Evidence gives us the power to change

By Richard Harries 26 January 2016

Ten years ago, as a civil servant in what is now the Office for Civil Society, I saw more than my fair share of badly designed, poorly presented evidence from charities and social enterprises looking for grant funding. To be sure, there were also some real gems hidden away in there, but it was precisely their rarity that caught the eye.

To make things worse, the quality of evidence for any particular project seemed to have little bearing on the actual funding decisions taken by Ministers. Ten years later, some would argue that very little has changed. But appearances can be deceptive. A new generation of practitioners have been sowing the seeds for a quiet revolution in the way we think about charity effectiveness. Whether it is Nesta’s Standards of Evidence, Big Society Capital’s Outcomes Matrix, or NPC’s own four pillar approach there is a growing recognition of the benefits of a more rigorous approach to measuring impact.

The latest manifestation of this new approach was the creation of the Power to Change Research Institute. Power to Change is a new charitable foundation, with a £150 million endowment from the Big Lottery Fund to develop and grow community businesses in England. In an unexpected, but welcome, move the decision was taken that 5% of this endowment should be set aside for research and evaluation.

The Institute has big ambitions. We want to take the quality of social sector research to a new level. We know it won’t be easy; things like data collection can be hugely challenging for small front-line organisations, and they will need lots of support. Collaboration is the key—so we are talking to Big Society Capital, for example, about how we can work with them to make the Outcomes Matrix easier to use and more accessible. Naturally, we are primarily interested in research that benefits community businesses, but wherever possible we want to work with partners where the benefits can spill over into other parts of the social sector.

Power to Change is a spend-down fund; in ten years it will be gone. By putting research at the heart of what we do—and committing serious funds to achieve this—we hope to inspire other grant-makers and social investors to follow suit, fostering a new culture of evidence-based social change.

Imagine the civil servants sitting in whatever the Office for Civil Society is called in a decade’s time—nothing would please me more than to know that they will have in front of them evidence of unimpeachable quality that demonstrates unambiguously the positive difference the sector is making to people’s lives, and to the communities they live in.

NPC has been working with Power to Change to develop a strategy for its Research Institute, focused on creating a credible evidence base for community business.