Ellis Jones was recently engaged by a charity to review of one of their programs. The impact of charities has always been a focus of our work, but there have been limited opportunities to get into the detail.
On paper, the program numbers were a potential issue – it was expensive to run and wasn’t supporting many volunteers or participants. The general value of the program wasn’t clear and it felt, at least on initial reading, as being outside of the general sweet spot / business as usual for the charity. So the program was reviewed to understand how to maximise its value.
However, the program itself uncovered a number of surprising, challenging and important findings. These are the key takeaways:
How well known is the impact of charities?
We weren’t quite sure where the review would head. For work of this nature, it’s best not to come in with pre-conceived ideas about outcomes. Conduct due diligence of documentation, stakeholder interviews and program development to conclude something that is meaningful and justifiable. It may not always be what people expect, but we present what the data t.
Personally, while I wasn’t sure where the review would head, I certainly wasn’t ready for how the review would challenge me and what it would teach me. The program dealt with a lot of complexities. Complexity of volunteers and participants, complexity of requirements, complexity of management and of funding. The review challenged my pre-conceived notions of disability and the types of people who live with a disability.
Perception vs reality
Quite quickly, it was recognised that the program on paper was not the program in real life. Our role was to listen and to learn about subject matter that often was uncomfortable, to conduct conversations that questioned perception of certain facets of disability and to quickly and genuinely empathise with the people involved.
The project uncovered truly inspirational stories about improvements that had been made to people’s lives. Changes that had occurred for both volunteers and participants. There was a clear mutual benefit to the program that was not well articulated and some truly transformative outcomes that were not being measured.
Through the review, it was hard to find comparable programs. Subject matter: yes; constraints and complexity of funding options: absolutely. But it is rare to have created a platform that enables people to form lifelong bonds and address very difficult and ever-changing circumstances as counterparts in both metro and regional areas alike.
These insights lead to investigating what good reporting metrics would look like and how these stories could be better shared so more people understood how much impact the program was having and could have.
Looking outside the four walls
Upon completing the review and armed with a very different view of the world, it was possible to apply the same lens to other charities. Part of desktop research during the project was to understand a few key metrics and found that globally, charities struggle to report the impact of their work.
Some use traditional metrics like FTE : volunteer ratios, and most are stuck taking a one dimensional view of their work. Household names were doing a better job of communicating their impact, mostly through well crafted and designed reports. They were a level above mid-tier and newer names, presumably because the value of professional presentations had become well established. But even well known names had difficulty differentiating themselves when talking about impact.
Thankfully, this charity had a wealth of positive outcomes, stories to share and demonstrable impact to measure and communicate.
What did the review teach me about the ability of charities to measure and communicate their impact?
The review surprised me in the sense that there was so much good work going on, with so little awareness of it. This concerned me, because I then assumed it would not be isolated and perhaps other charities would have similar issues.
Speaking to people in other not-for-profits, the feedback was that they faced the same challenges: reporting and articulating impact was a major gap and was becoming more of an issue. Similarly, they struggled to translate impact into communications (both internal and external) that engaged more people to support existing or new programs/initiatives.
Fundamentally, Australian charities lack transparency or an understanding about the impact of funding. There are multiple organisations jostling for limited resources and with seemingly more popping up every day, a sector that is growing more and more fragmented. Delivering a message, capturing interest and creating value for a volunteer or a donor is getting more and more difficult.
This, unfortunately, misses the real stories.
For NFPs willing to invest in the approach and the thinking, a real opportunity exists to analyse their programs and develop metrics of impact that are an accurate reflection of the work they do. Charities are often not like-for-like and one-dimensional metrics are doing their work a disservice. But a switch to impact-driven metrics that are cognisant of the context in which they work to actively make impact-driven improvements will reap rewards.
The only real risk is a change in business as usual. The reality is, however, that isn’t a risk. It’s a necessity for any NFP that wants to survive.