measuring tape

What about measurement?

By Norman Blissett 2 October 2013

Norman Blissett is the Director of Systems and Impact at Family Action, a leading provider of services to disadvantaged and socially isolated families. He will be speaking at NPC and Third Sector’s ‘Improving impact measurement & analysis’ conference on 15 October. 

The charity world is going through a period of turmoil. Competition is fierce, money is tight and operating risks are increasing. And all against a backdrop of a growing need for charity services. Like it or not, these pressures mean that charities must have a more commercial approach to their work, whilst continuing to emphasise their purpose and values.

Service provision charities face a challenging paradox: there is less money available from the state to run services, but bigger and riskier contracts are being tendered. There is often a desire to commission smaller local charities to run local services, but many struggle to manage the size and risk of these contracts. In addition, payment by results pass greater financial risk to the service provider, which, in the complex environment of multiple influencers, can be too financially risky for some to take on. Bigger charities, like Family Action, with more experience of public sector outsourcing, are able to carefully assess risk and may choose not to bid where they feel the risks are too great or where the commissioner has not provided enough information to allow risk to be quantified with any degree of confidence.

But where does impact measurement fit into all of this?

We live in a world where the commissioner is king, and very little power lies with the service provider. This can lead to multiple measuring requirements within one organisation with insufficient residual resource to measure organisational impact. This fragmentation internally and externally serves no one well.

Two things need to change for impact to be a measure of success and reward in the commissioning world:

  • First, commissioners should commission for success and impact. The work of the Early Intervention Foundation should be influential here. Commissioning frameworks should move to outcomes and impact, and away from cost and outputs, and there should be greater scope to extend contracts where real success factors are being achieved. Financial rewards should be short and long term, but ultimately based on impact.
  • Second, charities and social organisations themselves need to put outcomes and impact at the heart of what they do. They should be prepared to invest in this and take risks along the way and aim to achieve greater provider power. There will always be a balance to strike and providers need to understand commissioner needs whilst also applying their own measurement models. Partnership and flexibility is key to making this work;  but above all it requires a different, more entrepreneurial leadership and better management processes.

Achieving impact requires the passion to make positive, lasting change with great systems to measure success. We need to shape impact measurement with funders, tap in to the passion of staff to make a positive difference to the lives of service users, and develop robust systems to record, analyse and report.

Is third sector leadership strong enough to set its own agenda in this way? Find out for yourself at NPC and Third Sector’s ‘Improving impact measurement and analysis’ conference on 15 October.