Help for not for profit and charity trustees

A common tension

One of the common tensions in small not for profit organisations is the need to provide evidence of their activities, frequently called ‘outcomes’. The most obvious problem is the difficulty of actually doing it. Many of the outcomes are by their nature ‘soft’ and hard to define and measure. A charity may be doing valuable work but gathering evidence and demonstrating it may be extremely difficult. Measuring what you do, that is activities and outputs can, by contrast, be relatively easy.

So what are the difficulties? It is always assumed by experts and those giving advice on this subject, that people in receipt of help and advice are grateful and only too willing to help and respond with filling out a form or survey. Well many are, but a lot aren’t for a variety of reasons. Whether it be a sense of resentment, dissatisfaction with the service in some way or just nervous of providing information to anyone, getting a response or testimonial may not be possible.

Tracking people down may be next to impossible. Many people at the bottom of the social heap live uncertain lives. They may not have a settled address, an email address or a functioning phone. One way or another, obtaining evidence of your charities effectiveness may prove challenging.

But it is not only external difficulties with those you have helped which is the problem. There can be a reluctance by staff or management to engage in this. It can be for several different reasons. The difficulties of actually getting the information as already mentioned. A reluctance to be intrusive with people who may feel threatened by any thought of their details being kept somewhere. There can also be feelings of why should we do this? We do a good job so why spend (waste) time on this activity especially as it can be difficult, time consuming or even sensitive. We could be helping someone else not chasing around for some statistics and writing reports.

These and other feelings are understandable enough. The problem is that funders and those giving to charities and not for profit organisations, really do want to know what good it is doing and without this information, you are going to struggle. The future of the charity could conceivably be at risk unless it can show what it achieves. How can it be tackled?

The first thing to say is that it is vital that the staff are persuaded as to the value and need for this activity. It really is no good just asking for information to be collected – with all the difficulties I have mentioned – without explanation, justification or persuasion, and that includes listening to the reservations from them. Too often managements, of whatever organisation type, simply dump the forms or electronic requests etc. on staff and expect them to get on with it. That might just work in a commercial firm but with charities and not for profit organisations, where staff and volunteers are frequently committed to the cause and the people they help, it does not go down well.

Staff and volunteers need to be given solid reasons. If it is something funders want then, like it or not, the future of the organisation will depend on tackling this problem. On the question of funders, if it really is too difficult to get the information they are more likely to be convinced if you have a rigorous plan to try and acquire it. Just saying it was ‘too difficult’ and therefore you didn’t try at all, may not go down well.

This leads on to asking them – or at least discussing with them – how you might derive this information. It is quite possible that staff or volunteers have good answers as to what measures can be got and how it might be done: after all they are on the front line. Gaining their commitment is likely to be crucial especially in the not for profit environment.

Thirdly, you need to think right from the start, how you are going to do this. It may be possible to incorporate some kind of measurement or recording method if it was thought about from the beginning. How often for example has the call gone out for photos or stories of success, long after the ‘case is closed’. I say again, start with the end in mind. Do not assume by the way, that I am just talking about measurement meaning statistics or other numbers. Narratives and stories can be valuable. Ideally, you need both to give a rounded picture.

Being clear on the purpose of your charity is a key element. What are you trying to do? Have you ever asked yourself the question, what does success look like? It is very easy to beaver away each year and never stop and think how do we know when (if) we are successful and have achieved something. Being really clear about your purpose and having a good idea about what success will look like are two key pieces of thinking which are likely to give strong clues as to what information it is you need to collect.

It is more than ever essential that charities work hard to establish what they have achieved, not just talk about what they do.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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