Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking about impact and wanted to take this moment in Small Charity Week to reflect on what I have learnt and what it means for the British Youth Council.
Three things I have learnt:
- ‘Measuring’ impact is hard. It’s not always recognised in conversations and work around impact but it’s essential to do so. For an organisation there is no simple answer, no magic tool or resource which if you could just find the time to implement will ensure you are consistently delivering and able to evidence the positive impact you are having on individuals and communities. You have to be open to asking challenging questions, be honest in your responses, and be prepared for a process of continuous review and learning. You have to be prepared to accept you might not be having a positive impact, or not in the ways you intend, and then review what this means. This is before you even look at what we are trying to measure, the fact impact may not be seen until years down the line, young people have a multitude of influences and experiences which impact their lives. None of this is easy.
- We should aim to improve not prove. One way to move forward and feel less overwhelmed about the task ahead is to shift thinking from attempting to prove what we do works, to ensuring the quality of our programmes and making improvements where we can. This immediately brings in some breathing space, reduces pressure and challenges the culture that sees monitoring and evaluation as a burden we endure to prove ourselves to others, allowing us to focus attention and energy on what really matters. Bethia McNeil has blogged more about this here.
- Funders aren’t the bad guys. Because of a culture of attempting to prove ourselves to funders, rather than seeking to improve the quality of our work, we have often fallen into an unhealthy cycle that sees us collecting endless data, turning it in every quarter, never looking at it again, never sure that it’s been read, blaming the funder for the whole process. I don’t think this is uncommon and there are definitely examples of poor practice on both sides – we’re still untangling the effects of one funder’s decision a few years ago to add some last minute KPIs to our contract, based on the KPIs for another (very different, much larger) programme they also fund. I have come to the conclusion that the key here is being able to demonstrate a clear plan and how you will test it, allowing you to be open and confident about what you can offer as evidence (and what you can’t). Funders have experience and expertise to share, have the same priority of creating the best opportunities for young people, and appreciate open and honest conversations. Having these conversations is the only way we can change the narrative.
Three things I am looking forward to:
One of the goals of the British Youth Council’s new three-year strategy is that ‘we will understand and showcase meaningful change’. We will be articulating a clear plan of what we aim to achieve across our programmes and testing it. We are fortunate that our CEO and Trustee leading on this area of the strategy are supportive of the approaches above, encouraging a focus on improving quality, ensuring we can continue to achieve the best results for young people. In particular, in the coming months I will be focusing on:
- Creating a theory of change for the NHS Youth Forum We have the first residential of the 2018-19 Youth Forum at the end of the month and have recently recruited two new staff members to work on this project. I have used the opportunity of new energy and ideas to go back to basics, asking what our aims are for this work, and how are we monitoring progress and improving at every opportunity. Our commissioners at NHS England have been included in these conversations and are completely supportive and involved in moving this forward so we can all communicate the impact of this project more confidently.
- Releasing a series of films about our work. In 2017, part funded by Erasmus Plus, we commissioned a film maker to follow us round for a year. He became part of our event team, capturing behind the scenes footage and personal journeys as young people made their way through a year in our Youth Voice programme. We have released some of the films, but have a range still to release throughout this (our 70th!) year to bring to life and share stories about the impact that our work has on individuals and communities.
- Talking and sharing with others. Most of my thoughts and our direction has been shaped in conversation with others across the sector, in particular the work of the Centre for Youth Impact and a recent day led by Generation Change introducing their Impact Accelerator. As a small charity navigating the world of impact, these spaces and networks are invaluable and we will keep seeking collaborations and conversations. I am happy to share what we do (and don’t do), where our challenges are, what we’re excited about and more, so get in touch.