I like an analogy that Elizabeth Pisani used in her excellent book, The Wisdom of Whores, about HIV/AIDS and the role of NGOs and the UN (among others) in tackling the epidemic.

She makes the point that NGOs in this field are judged on whether they did what they said they’d do, rather than what difference they made.

That approach, she says, is “a bit like declaring that Ford is going well in the car market because they’ve got factories and floor managers and an advertising campaign, instead of looking at sales figures. Or even checking that they make cars that run.”

In the HIV/AIDS field a parallel is charities reporting on whether they did things like “build a clinic, or train some nurses or give leaflets to 400 out of the nation’s 160,000 drug injectors”, not how many infections they’ve actually prevented.

Although Ford is probably not doing a lot of boasting these days, the author makes a good point and one that charities in all fields should take note of.

I bet Pisani would approve of the new idea by the ImpACT Coalition (the UK body seeking to improve accountability and transparency in the voluntary sector) for a national campaign to promote charities to the general public by being more open and transparent about what they do and how they do it. It might be as simple as answering the five questions posed by ACEVO Chief Executive Stephen Bubb in his Third Sector article here:

1. What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
2. What are you doing about it?
3. Have you made any difference to it?
4. How do you know that?
5. And what have you learned?

For us the most important question is number 3. The one which asks whether charities have actually made a difference and an impact with their work. We welcome other people’s views on this.