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The time is now

By Guest contributor 18 September 2014

Ahead of our upcoming conference, High Impact, we asked David McCullough, Chief Executive of the Royal Voluntary Service, some of the questions we are likely to consider on the day. We can’t stand in line waiting for more money, he told us, but we can and should positively affect the future direction of the charity sector by proving what we do best.

Charities should measure and evaluate the effectiveness of what they do. To what extent do you think charities are persuaded of the importance of this?

Most of us know it’s the right thing to do, but like other good new habits (losing weight, stopping smoking), it’s getting started that’s the hard bit! I think the challenge is really what to measure and how. This always feels like a mountain you have to climb, but hopefully we can help our colleagues at the conference with some practical and not too painful ways to get started.

Charities have to work in ways that are proportionate to their size and resources, so how can they take a pragmatic approach to impact measurement and spend their budgets more effectively?

It’s about measuring the thing that will best demonstrate your impact—maybe one service or one intervention. Then—once you get that warm feeling of actually being able to see what you’ve achieved (in numbers as well as stories)—you’ll find your confidence and ambition begin to grow.

New services are sometimes the best place to start; set things up at the beginning with ways to capture data, so that you’re measuring impact from day one, rather than having to retro-fit.

Charities face dwindling resources, as well as external pressures created by changes to commissioning, shifting demographics and new technology. Are all of these trumped by the hostile political environment in which many feel they are working?

Overall, the external environment is the absolute driver for impact measurement. When times are tough (and they’re not going to get easier any time soon), we all have to be able to demonstrate the worth of what we do. If we can’t do that, then we become just one of many standing in the queue saying ‘I need more money’—and it’s a very long queue, with other very deserving voices represented.

How can charities respond to these challenges? What opportunities exist for those who act to measure, present and boost their value?

Everyone’s looking for new solutions: the NHS, local authorities, individuals. We all know the future will have to be different, but no one is quite sure how and in what way. This presents a perfect opportunity for our sector, with its amazing history of frugal innovation, to step into the limelight and develop new ways to deal with huge challenges.

I actually think that the environment has never been more encouraging for change and contribution by different partners.

Looking to the 2015 General Election, is the charity sector in fine fettle or do perils lie ahead?

Well, we’re just looking at the start of the downward slope. Local authorities are not even half way through the cuts they have to make, so it’s going to get pretty rough I think—despite talk of GDP growth. Whoever is in power, there won’t be any more money or, I suspect, a warmer climate towards the sector. Or at least a warmer climate will mean warm words and not resources.

So, I anticipate a pretty harsh climate—more mergers and sadly more charities unable to sustain their current activity. If there was ever a time to be able to evidence the contribution we make, then it’s now!