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.

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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

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