Trustees must be champions of impact in their charity

Published10th April 2018

A new crisis of accountability and trust

When it comes to your charity’s projects, monitoring and evaluation is often considered the operational realm of staff and SMT. But trustees, especially in smaller organisations, have a crucial role in understanding what’s working—and what needs developing –to better hold the SMT to account, ensure resources are used effectively, and make informed strategic decisions.

The recent stories about Oxfam, Save the Children and the Presidents Club (read NCVO’s part 1, part 2 and part 3 of the story) risks triggering another crisis in charity confidence. While trustees may immediately be concerned with safeguarding and serious incident reporting, being able to articulate the impact charities make will be a vital part of rebuilding the public’s—and beneficiary’s—trust in organisations, their staff and the work they do.

The charity sector has been here before—and trustees must be prepared to take action on evaluation and impact as much as transparency and whistleblowing.  As NCVO’s Karl Wilding says in his blog, ‘the debate is shifting to whether we are competent in how we deliver our charitable purposes.’ This means charities cannot just have the right policies and procedures in place– we need to be able to prove and loudly shout about the effect we have on individuals and the world around us.

At Inspiring Impact, we believe that when it comes to impact, leadership needs to come from the board. Are you leading for impact? Check out the five questions you should be considering.

Trustee responsibility

It is the responsibility of trustees to safeguard their charity and ensure money is spent most effectively. This will only be known with rigorous evaluation and impact measurement throughout the organisation. Trustees play an important role in setting the tone and culture of an organisation. a Inspiring Impact’s Code of Good Impact Practice has key principles and suggestions for applying them to your charity’s work.

The public expect to know how their money is being spent and what difference their donation makes. According to the Civil Society Almanac 2017, income from individuals from donations and purchases remain the charity sector’s main income source. The general public gives a staggering £20.6bn to charities in 2014/15. A fall in confidence equals a fall in donations. Conversely, better impact reporting and increased confidence could equal more donations.

Trustees are not operational in the charity: they don’t have to do the evaluation themselves. Rather trustees have a responsibility to ask the right questions, foster openness about programme/service quality, and allocate the necessary resources to fully understand the change the charity is making (or not). A board level, trustees have huge power to influence the impact culture of the charity.

Incentives for impact

Trustees, no matter how big or small the charity, have great legal and moral responsibility for their organisation. The decisions trustees make can have huge and these must be informed by the most robust information and data about what the charity does and achieves. If you’re not sure how you’re doing in this area, the Measuring Up! tool has been created to help you review and improve your organisation’s work on impact.

Better information about services and programmes means trustees can make better decisions about the future, especially when thinking about the long-term strategy of the charity. Knowing that the charity is delivering the right services and activities is vital. A charity is wasting public money if it is delivering the wrong things or not achieving positive outcomes for those involved. Money is in short supply within the charity and public sector and decent evaluation and impact data will help ensure trustees can make evidence-based decisions about resources, staffing and direction.

FAE: Frequently articulated excuses

Across the Inspiring Impact partners, we encounter hundreds of organisations—of all sizes—each year. Through this, we sometimes come up against the impact naysayers. Here are some of the things we hear:

  • We don’t have the money. Not an excuse. Inspiring Impact and Knowhow Nonprofit have a large collection of free tools, information and practice tips for capturing the change charities make.
  • We know we do great stuff! Sure, where’s the evidence? While our guts may be good for many things, they aren’t proof of the difference charities make. The public (and our beneficiaries) want evidence and stories of change – not our belief that we do good things.
  • You can’t capture what we achieve. Yes, you can. We know that charities do complex things, working in difficult situations and often with vulnerable people. Evaluation doesn’t need to be bureaucratic and rigid. You might not be able to capture all the things you do, but that shouldn’t put you off trying.
  • We’ve got too many other things to worry about! True, but this is important too. Charities have a lot to consider but charities are here to achieve things, not just to exist in themselves. Public trust is a serious threat to the sector and we all play a part in overcoming it.

What next?

Being able to evidence the difference your organisation makes is not an added extra in governance: it is an essential part of a charity’s ability to demonstrate competency in achieving its mission, foster belief among donors and beneficiaries that it is operating on a shared set of values, and that it is effective in delivering change. Trustees must be champions of impact in their charity and Inspiring Impact have many of the tools to help you achieve this.

by Alex Farrow, Lead Consultant at NCVO-CES

Further reading 

Check out NCVO’s guide on How to be involved in impact as a trustee of a small charity.


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