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How the voluntary sector can make better use of evidence

By Anne Kazimirski 31 October 2017

The voluntary sector faces a challenging task: from tackling gender-based violence to supporting people out of homelessness it is often tackling intractable issues, with dwindling resources. Charities and funders therefore need to be brilliant at understanding what works best, where, why and for whom.

But right now, as a sector, we are not making the most of what we know. While there are pockets of excellent practice around using evidence, we lack the systems needed for making best-practice the norm.

Evaluation activity is still too often funder-driven, rather than being fully focused on what the charity wants or needs to improve in order to deliver against its mission. Too many reporting requirements mean individual organisations often have to start from scratch to gather the right information to demonstrate different things to different funders. This puts pressure on even small organisations to collect a large amount of data.

And some organisations I have worked with struggle to even tell me what data they collect, let alone what’s being done with it other than filling in funders’ monitoring forms. This implies it’s not being used to improve and maximise impact, and that’s a problem.

We need more evaluation that fits the sector’s needs—which will vary depending on how new an intervention is, and how much evidence already exists for whether or not it works.

Earlier this month, at our annual conference NPC Ignites, we launched Towards an evidence-led social sector. In it we outline how we can build better systems for effective use of evidence on how best to social problems.

We call for all of the voluntary sector’s key players to be more aligned on the use of evidence. We look at funder behaviour and the incentives this behaviour sets; the systems encouraged by government; and the approach the social sector research community takes to producing research—because all this has an impact on the extent to which the social sector can be evidence-led.

We call on charities to build on what’s already known, on commissioners and funders to better coordinate what data they ask for, on the Charity Commission and wider government to open up data and to ask charities what they are learning. Surely, too, we could have a system that reduces the barrier of pay walls when it comes to accessing knowledge that could improve people’s lives.

It is possible for us to make progress. Only then can we have a successful, efficient sector, where good quality evaluation data is central to decision-making.

Take a look at the paper and let us know what you think: Are we being unrealistic? Or should we be more ambitious?

We’ll be working out over the next few months what NPC and others can do to support the sector to be more evidence-led—get in touch if you’d like to be involved.