April 1, 2013

Measuring Up

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Technology tagged , , , , at 1:40 am by Sue Hine

0_0_456_http___offlinehbpl.hbpl.co.uk_News_NST_40E0865A-FE42-BEE6-D70E8E44B24CF408[1]What do you reckon?  How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does?  What is your performance rating?  Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale?  Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?

There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game.  Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat?  Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?

When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment.  There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding.  It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors.  Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board?  To the tune of the latest marketing programme?  Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?

The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures.  But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.

Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.

It’s still much the same these days.  Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth.  Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.

The impact of services like these goes in several directions.  Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future.  The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements.  Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits.  There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services.  Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved.  The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements.  That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.

We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society.  We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change.  Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels.  As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business.  Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.

But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change.  We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.

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