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Why charities should collect less impact data

By James Noble 14 August 2015

I work in NPC’s measurement and evaluation team so it might seem odd for me to be advocating for less impact data. But while we believe in the benefits of good impact measurement across the charity sector, we also believe in quality over quantity and think that data collection should be focused on what we need to know to tackle social issues, rather than on the needs of individual organisations.

To explain what I mean, it’s useful to go back to the question of why we spend our time helping charities to use evidence. Ultimately it has to be about charities having an increasingly positive impact for beneficiaries. We believe that evidence helps with this by encouraging services to be designed and delivered according to an understanding of ‘what works for whom in what circumstances’—and by helping funding go to the services that are most likely to help.

This ‘evidence utopia’ is sometimes represented by analogy to the medical sector, which has a long tradition of collecting and using evidence. I’d agree that we should be emulating the medical sector’s spirit of enquiry; the way that the whole profession is encouraged to test, learn and challenge results. But the analogy is inappropriate in other ways; our methodologies will never provide their levels of certainty and replicability, and we will never have the same level of funding for research.

In the charity sector we have to be more realistic about what a good evidence system could look like. As outlined in our recent paper on evidence in  the criminal justice sector, we have identified six ‘ingredients’ for the effective use of evidence:

  • Services based on good theories of change that reflect the latest academic research and evidence.
  • Providers collecting and analysing the right information to monitor their performance, including access of outcomes data from official sources like the Justice Data Lab.
  • A common language of intermediate outcomes and measures across the sector, including standard approaches that can be used by organisations in different settings.
  • Commissioners and funders choosing services on the basis of evidence.
  • An open culture of publishing findings and learning from one another’s work.
  • Fewer, but higher-quality evaluations, particularly focused on innovative services that might help us learn something new.

The last of these bullet points brings us back to the contention of this blog. It bothers me that so many charities collect data to show they make a difference, while we conspicuously fail to accumulate and share this knowledge in the way the medical profession does. To my mind, this is because the incentives are wrong. Organisations feel compelled to collect impact data to validate themselves and persuade funders to keep giving them money—so they become trapped in a cycle of self-justification and pointless data collection (we call this the ‘beauty parade’).

A solution could be for organisations to split their evidence requirements into two distinct questions:

  1. What is the evidence for the thing that we do?
  2. Do we deliver the thing effectively?

To answer the first question we need to do fewer, higher quality studies, that are published and disseminated freely. Ideally, it’s not a question that individual charities should pose about themselves. Rather they should see themselves as delivering a service model and then work alongside others delivering similar models to collaboratively test their effectiveness and agree how to improve.

To answer the second question, charities need to do limited routine data collection that helps check quality and user engagement and assures funders and commissioners they are doing a good job. Note that this is not about impact; if you know the service model works you do not need to test it again and again.

Ultimately this way of thinking should lead to a smaller amount of impact data being collected and the data that is collected being more focused on questions that help beneficiaries rather than the perceived needs of individual organisations.

We know a lot needs to happen for this to become a reality and our paper outlines what we think the priorities should be. What do you think would help your sector make this shift? Let us know in the comments below.