Evidence is the best argument you can make

By Matt van Poortvliet 16 February 2011

What would happen if you weren’t here? This, the measurement geeks at NPC will tell you, is called the ‘counterfactual’.

One way of thinking about a charity’s impact is to consider the counterfactual argument, to ask: what would the world look like if a given charity was not here? What would happen to the people it supports? Where would they go? How would the local area be different?

Let’s say that we get rid of a charity supporting vulnerable young people. Will we see an increase in youth crime in the local area? A rise in truancy, a rise in teen pregnancy, an unhappier, less motivated group of teenagers? Or will nothing change? Perhaps they will sort out their own challenges.

For large parts of the youth sector, we’re about to find out. Recent reports suggest that the sector is facing 28% cuts over the next year with 3,000 youth workers set to lose their jobs. The current generation of 13–25 year olds—the ones with few job prospects, the loss of EMA, and a rise in tuition fees—are an unfortunate control group in assessing the value of the youth sector. But maybe they will ‘grow out’ of their problems, as Graham Stuart MP, devil’s advocate and chair of the Education Select Committee has suggested.

Why is the youth sector facing such severe cuts? It’s hard to tell why cuts are falling where they are. But a possible explanation is that the youth sector has struggled to provide evidence of its impact. Graham Stuart was damning of the sector, stating: ‘It is an extraordinary failure that you can’t make a better fist of explaining what difference you make.’ But, given that many charities with good evidence are also facing cuts, perhaps evidence is just an excuse.

Evidence is not a guarantee of funding, but it is the best argument that you can make. It is clear that if you don’t start to make your own argument for your impact, the local authorities will do it for you by seeing how things look in your absence. For charities that can’t prove their value, we are going to find out the hard way what their impact really was.

This is the second in a series of three blogs about charities in the youth sector. Next time: negotiating changes to funding structures.