Measuring 'soft outcomes' is difficult but worthwhile - your efforts will pay off when you report back to funders
If your core business concerns 'soft outcomes' such as self-esteem or social skills, it is important to understand how to evaluate your progress so you can convince funders you are achieving results.
"It's hard to measure soft outcomes, but it's not impossible," says Richard Piper, joint manager of the Performance Hub, which is run by Charities Evaluation Services and the NCVO. "There are a lot of ways of doing it, and some organisations have been doing it successfully for years. They may be called 'soft', but they're still real."
According to Deborah Bestwick, director of the Oval House Theatre, it is possible to measure some aspects of a seemingly unmeasureable project.
"People expect arts interventions to be slightly unquantifiable, but we give data such as 'we aim for X per cent to be punctual to sessions' or 'X per cent to feel better about their ability to learn new skills'," she says.
Piper points to the example of Magpie Dance, a community dance company for people with and without disabilities, based in Bromley, south London.
It has been funded by Connexions South London, but its most recent grant of £10,000 involved negotiating with Connexions to reset the parameters of how the grant's outcomes should be assessed. "Connexions has government-set targets, which means it has boxes we just couldn't tick, in terms of education and employment," says Joanna Ridout, development manager at Magpie. "However, our participants get more in terms of learning and social and physical skills than they might from other programmes. Accordingly, Ridout and borough Connexions manager Paul King agreed some different assessment criteria."
Finding a willing advocate within the funding body is probably the most important step. "I was in a position to be persuaded," King says. "Our headline objective is to bring down the number of young people who are not in employment, training or education at 16. However - and this is why I was interested in relaxing the criteria - I suspected you could achieve some quite sophisticated outcomes with this group."
King agreed to use Magpie's own scoring system, under which participants are assessed on how they have progressed in areas such as communication skills and body awareness. "I'm interested in getting case study evidence," adds King. "Ours shows the 'woolly stuff' can actually enable young people to become peer educators. To me, that's a learning outcome."