Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Power of Perspectives

I’m a great believer in understanding different points of view. It’s a vital part of evaluation, and not bad advice for life too. As Robert Burns said “…to see ourselves as other see us”.

Different perspectives affect the way charities work as well. Over time, I’ve formed a view of the contrasting ways in which funders, charities and beneficiaries themselves can see things. I’m talking mainly about smaller charities that work with people, and that receive funding from commissioning, charitable trusts or sponsorship (as opposed to public donation).

As an evaluator, I’m sometimes asked to provide independent evaluation of a specific project or activity, to provide assurance or validation to the funder. That funder’s perspective, put simplistically, can be summarised by first diagram. It provides funding to a charity, which then carries out a project, which in turn benefits the people it works with. In the old days, this was measured by the number of people seen, number of contacts, or even just opening hours – outputs, in other words. Increasingly (and quite rightly), funders now want to know about outcomes – what different the project has made to its beneficiaries, and possibly to others as well.

All well and good, but the charity itself may have a different perspective. It’s rare for a charity to have a single source of funding, or indeed to be running just one project. Many draw funding from a range of different sources and run several projects or activities, sharing some staff and central functions between them. Of course, they can account for expenditure to different funders, but accounting for outcomes may not be so simple, particularly where beneficiaries are part of more than one project. Here the question of “attribution” arises: what outcomes, or how much impact, comes from each project?

But there’s a further perspective still, that of the beneficiary him/herself – the person who needs help. It’s not uncommon for that person to have a choice of support services, from different organisations (both voluntary and statutory), and there may even be further options that they are unaware of. They may well be receiving support from more than one organisation, let alone more than one project. Not only that, but all this takes place in the context of real life, where events outside the control of any service can have a big impact on the person’s wellbeing. Assessing the outcome of any one piece of this ‘jigsaw’ now becomes even more problematic.

So, what’s the solution? Firstly, I believe that third perspective must be the starting point. It’s why we’re doing this, surely. Rather than “what outcomes does the project achieve?” a better question might be “what life changes do people experience, and how does the project contribute to this?”. This may need some change of mind-set from funders and charities: less of “our funding” or “our charity”, more of “our contribution to better outcomes”.

There’s much to be done, but I do see signs that this need for collaboration is being recognised. Social Return on Investment (SROI) captures this thinking, as do ideas like shared measurement and impact management. If we maintain this momentum, I believe there’s a future where charities, working together and in partnership with funders, can achieve even greater social impact and value.