Please close the gate sign

Shutting the gate before the horse has bolted

By Guest contributor 28 February 2013

My grandfather used to say, ‘Aim at nothing and that’s exactly what you’ll hit’.  But as a misfiring Arsenal striker might tell you, that logic doesn’t necessarily hold—even when you do aim at something, what you end up ‘hitting’ may go far beyond your intended target (you could hit a spectator or the corner flag).  And if recent times have taught us anything it’s that no good can come from an obsession with targets.

We continue to feel the aftershocks of a global financial crisis which had wealth obsession at its epicentre, the purveyors of which were either oblivious to, or uncaring of, its consequences.  The last few weeks alone have thrown up two more glaring examples of a culture fixated on targets: I’m thinking of the Stafford Hospital revelations and the horsemeat scandal.

In the case of Stafford Hospital, both a 2009 report by the healthcare commission and an independent inquiry in 2010 cited the target chasing nature of the Mid Staffordshire Trust as a critical factor in the far higher than expected number of patient deaths.  Why? Because it seems the hospital was concerned to meet targets set by the Trust rather than the needs of those in their care.

Similarly, one has to question how horsemeat has found its way so systemically into what we eat.  One simple answer seems to be its relatively low cost compared to beef.  In other words, as meeting financial targets became the focus, the squeeze on quality was inevitable, and the door was opened to decidedly dodgy practices.

What has any of this got to do with charities?  Well, quite a lot, actually. In the examples above an obsession with targets drove actions that, deliberately or not, paid no regard to impact.  It’s crucial that, in a climate of reduced and competitive funding, charities focus not only on targets (financial or otherwise) but also consider the full impact of their work.

This isn’t just about preventing problems – a charity that places impact at the centre of what they do is one being intentional about the difference they want to make: spelling out intended change, undertaking activities to support it, reflecting on the change created (good or bad), and using that understanding to be more effective in future.  The benefits of taking such an approach include being able to:

  • Allocate limited resources where they can do the most good
  • Clearly articulate what they work on and why
  • Understand the positive and negative outcomes of their work and doing more of the former and less of the latter
  • Publicise widely inside and outside the charity the difference they’ve made
  • Better serve those they intend to help

Last week, the NCVO published the Code of Good Impact Practice for further consultation, as part of the Inspiring Impact programme.  The programme aims to change the way that the UK voluntary sector thinks about impact and the Code aims to provide broad and agreed guidelines for focusing that thinking.  It does this by setting out a cycle of good impact practice against eight general principles:

  1. Take responsibility for impact and encourage others to do so too
  2. Focus on purpose
  3. Involve others in your impact practice
  4. Apply proportionate and appropriate methods and resources
  5. Consider the full range of the difference you make: positive and negative, planned and unplanned
  6. Be honest and open
  7. Be willing to change and act on what you find
  8. Actively share your impact plans, methods, findings and learning

We want the Code to be as useful as possible for all charities, social enterprises, and a source of information for those who fund them, so it’s important that you have your say.  The charity sector exists to make a positive difference to society, something arguably required now more than ever.  Let’s make sure we put the making of that difference at the heart of our thinking and practice.

James Barker is the Improvement & Innovation Consultant at National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). He is involved in NCVO’s work as part of Inspiring Impact to help charities and social enterprises know what good impact practice looks like.