Getting the Balance Right – Compliance VS Impact in the Voluntary & Community sector

Catalysed by the pressure of tightened budgets, we live in an age where people increasingly want to know what their taxes (public funds) are being spent on and more significantly what lasting difference these investments are having. Among other things the age (and fear) of 24hr media has fuelled this desire and in many ways this is not a bad thing. People want reassurance that ‘their’ money is being well spent and that people and communities in need of support are getting the support and opportunities they need so they can live a dignified existence.

This is in contrast with a bygone era where investments (as long as they didn’t stray too far into politics) were made without the risk of much scrutiny from the public. People were less interested in the difference investments were making, rather that interventions were taking place to support people and communities in less ‘well-off’ sections of society. Government gave grants to community groups who in turn reported on the activities or services they delivered. The bigger questions about whether this intervention made any difference or whether this was even the right intervention to address the problem in the first place were not often considered.

The monitoring systems and mechanisms that espoused this approach are the same ones that are today being used to demonstrate the difference investments are making to people’s lives – or the impact.  These systems generate mountains of activity and financial related data with an underlying theme of control and compliance – did you deliver the activities you said you would and if not justify yourself!!  This information, while necessary for accountability and audit, tells us very little about the impact of these investments.

This imbalance between accountability and impact assessment data is preventing the most efficient use of public resources. Decades of administering funding in this way has given birth to a culture of reporting across the public sector that fails to focus on the outcomes and impact of investments made.

If we want to know the difference public money is really having in the V & C sector the Public Sector needs to ensure its systems are focused on the prize: more effective use of public resources through more effective evidence of impact.

This is central to a value for money agenda.

In most instances across the public sector the right information is not being collected to do this – it’s more focused on targets and monitoring.

Staff at VCSE organisations and public sector officials alike are guilty of complying with this target culture so that all concerned can say – ‘we hit our target therefore we must be doing things right’.

Let’s stop focusing on doing things right and start focusing on doing the right things!!

The sector and funders alike need to make the cultural and systemic shift from micro-management and micro-measurement to focus on the macro level – the lasting difference we are making to people’s lives.

This requires investment in change. That change will not happen without leadership – leadership across political parties, across central & local government departments and agencies, leadership across the voluntary/community sector.

The Inspiring Impact NI programme, a Building Change Trust initiative, is supporting the sector and its funders to address this deficit and put impact at the heart of the sector. The Building Change Trust has committed £500,000 to the programme matched by a further £188,000 from the Department for Social Development, to deliver an initial two year programme of work here in Northern Ireland.

This is supporting a range of demonstration projects across VCSE organisations and their funders to test a more impact focused approach to grant funding. It is hoped that this can be replicated by other organisations and statutory funders across Northern Ireland.

We want to see a strong, vibrant sector (including its funders) with impact practice built into their DNA – that is to say everything they do revolves around having a greater impact on the lives and communities of those with whom they work. In order to achieve this there is an urgent need to break out of these old models of monitoring and evaluation.

Aongus O’Keeffe is the Programme Leader at Inspiring Impact NI

  • Too many publicly funded ‘voluntary’ sector organisations doing much the same chasing same pot of cash. Time for consolidation and cull.

  • the mexican

    fine, but any consolidation/cull needs to be based on evidence of impact, which is sorely lacking, or you risk cutting the good with the bad!

  • D99

    “Let’s stop focusing on doing things right and start focusing on doing the right things!!”

    OK Aongus, but who determines what the right things are? In other words:
    Do funders and VCSE organisations have a shared vision with regard to impact?

    Whilst I agree that planning for impact is crucial, there’s not always general agreement about what the desired impact should be. This is not solely a matter of planning methodology. It’s also a question of agreed values.

    Ask funders what ‘impact’ they would like ESF projects, or Steps 2 Success delivery, or YES training to have – you’ll get an answer framed in terms of outcomes, or numbers of individuals moving off benefit into employment. Ask co-opted VCSE organisations, and they may want to talk about impact that empowers individuals and benefits communities in equally tangible but significantly different ways.

  • the mexican

    Thanks D99- fair point, can’t disagree and that is unfortunately the current reality with many funded programmes. But funders and VCSEs can and should have a shared vision. Will defer you to the United Youth programme for a good example of that – co-design process with VCSEs leading to an agreed set of overarching outcomes that their funded organisation will be feeding into. And its not just job outcomes but all the so-called ‘softer’ outcomes along the spectrum – self-esteem, self-empowerment and so on. All funding programmes need to be going in this direction.

  • nigel mckinney

    Consolidation and cull goes too far. in a free society organisations and individuals have the right to form such groups , dealing with such issues as they see fit. However that does not guarantee the right to public funding. In my view , any organisation working on a particular social topic should be looking to see who else is either working on the same issue or also interacting with their clients/beneficiaries with a view to exploring if collaboration could take place. It is also reasonable for funders be they private or public to require collaboration. The key to success however is in how that is done – I recall reading that most private sector mergers fail – merger often seems like an obvious solution – but may not be the best. Organisations need to help to work with others, there are issues of clarity and focus, personalities, legal matters , all to contend with. In recognition of that Building Change Trust has invested @ £1.7 million in a collaboration support service for voluntary , community and social enterprise organisations in NI. Any organisation needs to exist to achieve its objects , not as a vessel for the receipt and expenditure of funding to no clear end. But VCSE organisations in NI know this and hence the huge demand and work taking place across the CollaborationNI and Inspiring Impact NI initiatives

  • D99

    Yes Mexican, the United Youth Programme seems to be adopting a more collaborative approach, with its co-design process and it’s focus on putting the participants/beneficiaries at the centre of the projects. I hope it is successful in terms of impact and, if it is, becomes a model for future initiatives.

    Again, yes – funders and VCSEs ‘should’ have a shared vision, but my sense is that quite often they do not; and maybe this is where some of the work around collaboration could be focused.

    The choices for some VCSEs are: to adopt the values and vision of the funder, plan for and report on the impact that the funder is interested in, or identify alternative funding sources that allows them to maintain their values and independence and deliver the impact they really want to achieve.

    Very often, this latter choice is unavailable these days.

  • Nimn

    I’ve been working with VCS organisations for over 10 years and I’m a director/truste of two charities constantly looking for partnering opportunities and funding, while trying to develop a sustainable commercial model to fund our social benefit.
    My observations are a prevailing sense of ‘right ‘for public sector funding by many groups. “just give us the money and lets get on with it'” No sense of a collective vision among small groups with the same direction of travel to come together and work as one.Often this is down to where funding is being applied. If a group has funding supporting jobs (mortgages, cars etc) they are unlikely to give this up for a greater good. I have watched organisations make deep cuts into services when funding was tight before they would not even contemplate cutting posts to reduce costs. Another factor is that there is a funding/grant ethos that pervades the sector where a more commercial model of selling services just doesn’t get any consideration. Where it does I have found an argument from the VCS to be treated as a special case in procurement terms – longer time to submit bids; help with bidding and a preference for VCS organisations all debated.
    I have had a lot of discussion with commissioners in health and social care and while TYC made a big noise about the VCS being part of the Integrated Care Partnerships, privately beyond the large charities or groups working at scale there is no belief that smaller organisations have the capacity or capability to deliver.
    All honest observations, for which I’m expecting a strong reaction.

  • the mexican

    I agree to a point Nimn. There definitely is a culture of entitlement among some VCS orgs which is a flip side of the funding to the sector. That too is a culture that needs to be challenged. Applying an impact focus across the sector and Govt would also by default shift that culture. Organisations should only receive (public) funding based on need and the impact their interventions are having – nobody should be entitled to funding as a matter of course.
    There definitely are many organisations that would benefit from collaboration and joining forces, and not just from a financial point of view. Hence the work of Collaboration NI to support the sector in that regard. Strategically there should be a lot more collaboration within and beyond the sector.
    I’m not so sure that every charity should be a social enterprise, however – if that’s the point you were making. While many more should certainly have income generating mechanisms there is space and a need for all to exist I feel.