Action West London (AWL) is a well-established charity and social enterprise (20th anniversary year is 2018/2019 ). We work with over 600 disadvantaged individuals each year through a variety of ‘payment by results’ (PBR); grant funded and social enterprise projects. Our mission is ‘changing lives through employment education and enterprise’.
So, it stands to reason that we should be measuring the social impact of our work. But reason unfortunately is not the only factor at work. Finance is the key driving factor for all charities in these challenging times. Without sustainable finance you can’t deliver services.
AWL has been wanting to set up systems to measure impact for several years—but it takes time energy, commitment and most of all resources to kick start the process. Most staff are not keen to add extra data collection duties on top of what is already viewed as over-bureaucratic demands by funders.
Funders have very differing demands. Some funders aren’t clear what they mean by social impact but expect organisations to still measure it, some aren’t interested in social impact at all. Alongside this, very few funders will pay for staff time to measure social impact.
Life is complicated…
In the case of AWL, for example, we run around 12 different projects a year—all requiring separate data requirement returns. PBR contracts require us to enter all output data on their management information systems, but no social impact data; other major contractors don’t even provide a database or management information system. Other funders require new data systems to be created by AWL.
Almost all contracts require just OUTPUT data and not OUTCOME data
Why hasn’t AWL set up established systems to measure impact before now? Lots of reasons…
- Someone needs to have the time to set up data collecting systems, suitable criteria and means of collecting data.
- Someone needs to have time and expertise to analyse the data and present results.
- Funding needs to come from somewhere to pay for what in effect may require skills of a research graduate.
All this needs to be balanced with everyone focusing on delivering badly needed services to real people and achieving the output targets which generate income and makes the organisation financially sustainable.
Understanding impact is essential—but so is service delivery and financial sustainability
So how can progress be made? The Access Impact Management Programme has enabled AWL to develop social value measurement systems and processes by:
- Funding staff time internally to focus on this work and;
- Funding outside expert consultants (Aleron) who we worked with to develop systems.
We entered the Impact Management Programme not just because we felt it essential to measure the social value of our work, but also because we saw it as a means of providing information which would improve our service delivery.
We want to know much more than how many people we help into employment each year
We want to know what barriers the individual faced, how we helped them overcome the barriers and what social value did this have for the individual. Do they feel more confident about future employment? How much financially better off are they? How has this impacted on their status and family?
We have made good progress through developing our impact measurement systems through the Impact Management Programme, but it is still very much a work in progress, one which we are committed to grow and establish into all our projects.
Finally, what is the most effective way to increase impact measurement?
- Include impact measurement as a paid output.
- Funders should provide funding for someone’s time to develop impact measurement processes and systems.
- Don’t try and re-invent the wheel (we used Big Society Capital’s employment and training criteria as a base for our systems).
- Share your expertise through Networks such as the Impact Management Programme and Inspiring Impact.
By Dr John Blackmore, Chief Executive, Action West London.