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The road to learning

By Guest contributor 24 September 2014

For a large organisation like the NSPCC, the motivation to measure impact is often much less likely to come from external pressure. Instead, Head of Strategy, Policy and Evidence Lisa Harker explains how staff who care about the difference they are making have embraced evaluation techniques, and describes the journey this has taken them on.   

I was recently asked to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on behalf of the charity for whom I work.

No sooner had I sat down to be cross-examined than I was congratulated for all the great work my charity does. Rather than bask in the reflected glory of the compliment, I felt sorely disappointed. Here I was, ready to be tested about the impact of the charity’s work by one of the principal statutory bodies charged with bringing private, public and charitable organisations to account.

I had prepared my evidence carefully and, in the process, asked some tough questions of my organisation. I felt confident that we had irrefutable proof of our impact, along with a clear account of where we wanted to do better.

Here lies a paradox about the charity sector. It attracts staff and volunteers who are motivated by the idea that they could make a real difference in pursuit of their cause, and yet there is remarkably little pressure (on our charity at least) to show that they are doing so. A rather stifling warm glow surrounds charities—the belief that they must be making a difference because they are charities.

And this seems unlikely to change anytime soon: last year’s fall in public confidence in charities barely registered in the sector. In my experience, the drive to measure impact is much more likely to come from within.

Not that the road to impact measurement is easy. Self-scrutiny can be tough. Examining whether all the hard work and money devoted to activities has been worth it is scary; perhaps scariest of all for those who really care about making a difference.

But the prize is much more than improving your organisation’s ability to account for its charitable spend. Knowing that you have a clear account of why you are doing what you are doing, and whether it is working, is far more motivating than a lifetime’s supply of team-building sessions.

At the NSPCC we have been on something of a journey in the past five years, as we have embraced impact assessment with vigour. We have learned how to evaluate our impact the hard way- by applying some of the most rigorous evaluation techniques in real time to the services we are delivering to children and families.

It has been a tough ride at times. It has required a commitment to drawing learning from what we do, to match the organisation’s enduring determination to help children. Rather than seeing these objectives conflict, we have grown to understand how they are mutually dependent. Evaluating our services has often taken longer and frequently been harder than we expected. Some services have been slow to embrace the new culture.  Even now there are corners of the organisation which have barely begun the journey at all.

But it has been worth it. There is a world of difference between sensing that your actions are contributing to positive change in some way and rigorous measurement of the impact of your activities. Just knowing that you can stand up to Select Committee scrutiny if you are ever required to is reward enough.

  • Lisa will be speaking at our upcoming High Impact conference about how the NSPCC has improved services by placing impact at the centre of its work. See the full programme here.