I recently read a thought-provoking paper from the TSRC, Is the third sector so special? What is it worth? It argues that we need a better understanding of ‘our’ collective value, an increasingly pressing issue as lines between public, private and non-profit become less distinct.
I say ‘our’, because it is debatable whether there is much that really unites charities and voluntary groups in the first place. Are we definably different? In an age where businesses deliver public sector contracts, enterprises are set up to tackle social issues, and charities reluctantly provide volunteers to plug gaps in local services provision, it is tempting to answer: no. We have found ourselves in a glorious muddle, and often struggle to demonstrate that we are different, or better, than other approaches to delivering social value.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I arrived at NPC’s impact report writing workshop on 15 November. Not billed as an intellectual exercise, it was intended as a practical introduction to creating effective and useful impact reports without getting lost in complexity; and was, in this regard, a very valuable event.
However it also proved to be an excellent opportunity to get thinking. The panellists’ rigorous approach to measuring impact, and the audience’s dedication to improving their approach, struck me as something that was, actually, quite special. The very fact that we create impact reports sets us apart, to an extent (and charities that don’t are letting the side down).
But the real difference could be seen in the two excellent case studies of charities that had created reports to communicate their impact. Just like any other business, IntoUniversity’s report was carefully branded and professionally presented; similarly, Body & Soul’s unique design clearly sets them apart from other organisations. But this was not just an exercise in marketing, or of brand building, although both are important. These impact reports conveyed their charity’s personality – the things it cares about, the values it carries, its hope and ambitions, its character, how it is different and unique. And charities can be much better at developing a personality than for-profit companies, because they work on issues that we, as people, also care about; much more so than the cars, or bank accounts, or phones that other businesses want us to connect with. Both, in a sense, can be brands, but charities can also be human.
So impact reporting can be a double-edged sword in charities’ arsenals. I left the event thinking how important it is to communicate our values, as well as our value; our personality, as well as our achievements. Only then can we justify the need for our distinct approach.
Alice Thornton is the Network Manager at Student Hubs.
There will be a live Q&A about the TSRC discussion paper on the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, today, 27 November 2012, from 1 – 3pm.