Youth Music is a national charity, investing in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances. Our projects help young people to develop musically, but they also yield positive personal and social outcomes too.
Moving from accountability to strategic learning
Over Youth Music’s short history, it is possible to trace a trajectory that runs from using evaluation for accountability purposes, through to demonstrating impact and towards strategic learning. Our first monitoring forms from around the turn of the century sought to identify if funding had been allocated in line with funding agreements—in short, accountability.
Early on we established an internal Research & Evaluation department, who introduced an outcomes approach and published our first annual impact report shortly after. It was clear at this stage that we were using evaluation to demonstrate impact and understand how our funding had made a difference.
By 2012, we had absorbed this ethos into the roles of those managing grants through the creation of the Grants & Learning Officer role during an organisational restructure, embedding learning within the management of grants. We also had established a consistent outcomes framework across our programme.
Mind-set is key to achieving this
There are numerous practical guides about adopting impact practice and as many organisations will attest, this is not something that happens overnight. Significant organisational change may appear straightforward on the surface, enacting it involves substantial organisational commitment. Resources like Inspiring Impact’s Measuring Up tool provide an excellent framework to reflect on your organisation’s current impact practice with colleagues, and can help you identify and prioritise areas for development. Highlighting the long-term benefits is essential in order to gain the necessary buy-in to overcome the challenges in the short-term.
What it looks like in practice
On a day to day basis, our priorities for handling information are driven by the three guiding principles which are crucial to strategic learning (as highlighted by Institute of Voluntary Action Research):
- Asking the right questions and getting the right data.
- Structuring the work to enable regular use of data.
- Effectively processing and using the data.
Recognising that we are a relatively small charity, with access to a comparatively substantial volume of information from our grant holders alone, foregrounds the necessity for efficiency. Likewise, our portfolio contains many small, grassroots organisations often with limited resources. As such it is essential that we collect quantitative and qualitative data that is focused on the questions that we need to answer in line with our business planning.
Building a cycle of learning
An openness to learning helps nurture an organisational ethos that is open to change. By mapping the ebb and flow of knowledge both internally between teams and externally across stakeholders, inefficiencies and missed opportunities can readily be highlighted.
We recognised our Grants & Learning Officers as the gatekeepers of this information and adopting an organisational approach to learning we devised a light-touch mechanism to support the individual intuition, team interpretation, and organisational integration in a ‘feedforward’ process. Our Grants & Learning Officers meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of interest to the organisation, distilling key information for dissemination to the wider staff team in all staff sessions. This is then used internally and disseminating by our communications team.
By supporting learning across the organisation, nurturing the tension between exploration and exploitation, it is possible to build an impact culture that becomes rewarding and close to self-sustaining. Through this process, organisations can build an openness to change which ultimately supports strategic aims.