Charities must get better at measuring their impact, says Simon Hebditch
To be frank, there is not really much more to be said about the great parliamentary expenses scandal.
Put simply, scores of MPs have, in effect, defrauded the public purse and should be thrown out of Westminster, courtesy either of their parties or the electorate. How about the creation of a community electoral alliance to support a group of independent activists that will contest the next general election in selected constituencies?
But the issue here is one of trust and confidence: the public has lost all sense of trust in the integrity of our legislators. And the consequences of this do not just affect politicians. Public trust is fragile at the best of times, and we have to work to retain and enhance it. Charities and voluntary organisations are no strangers to the trust and confidence debate. They have to maintain the trust of their donors and funders by reassuring them that resources are being used wisely and responsibly, and for the right purposes. The voluntary and community sector has to show that its work is effective and that service outcomes are being achieved.
Recent work by New Philanthropy Capital, which seems to be a hotbed of first-class research reports at the moment, has shown that many charities are still not taking enough notice of the need to measure their effectiveness and report clearly on their impact. I am not pretending it is easy. Many of us have struggled to create meaningful evaluation programmes that are robust, independently verified and tell accurate stories about the development of services and projects.
But there is no alternative. Donors, funders, service users and other stakeholders have the right to know whether services are effective and meeting real needs in the community. They also need to see that resources are being used cost-effectively - that both collective public resources (taxpayers' money) and the funds of private donors are being used appropriately rather than wasted.
To provide that assurance, charities and voluntary organisations must move much more quickly to ensure that their impact reporting is accurate and properly describes change in local communities. I am not simply talking about producing numbers and ticking boxes: it is perfectly possible - and legitimate - to describe change with case study evidence that can be attributed to the work of charities.
Charities and voluntary organisations stand reasonably high in the estimation of the public. We must not squander that trust.
- Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders.