We all generalise about the voluntary sector, but much of what we say is opinion or the extrapolation of a pan-sector view from narrow experience. We do not mean to mislead ourselves or anyone else, but we do because, quite simply, data collection is low on our to-do lists, elbowed out by survival and daily delivery.
Funders – and I speak as an ex-funder myself – have not helped; too many have been reluctant to fund anything other than direct service provision. They want evaluation, but will not pay for the necessary time and people to collect the evidence needed to provide it. The result is inadequate information, poor understanding of impact and, consequently, weak intellectual capital.
Regrettably, this is true despite sterling efforts by, for example, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to collect and collate good data on the sector as a whole: you cannot analyse what is not there in the first place, and you cannot process data that is collected haphazardly and in widely varying forms. And there are consequences: no data, no proof, no case to argue.
Three cheers, then, to Kairos in Soho and the London lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual sector for putting its information house in order. An impressive total of 89 London organisations cooperated to make the recently published London LGBT Voluntary and Community Sector Almanac an invaluable portrait of the sector, with all its breadth, depth, achievements and self-acknowledged limitations.
Cheer number one goes to the busy people who took the time to complete 65 questions: that alone says they are committed to development. Cheer two to the authors, who, with good scientific discipline, presented their research honestly and acknowledged all its limitations so we can judge for ourselves how reliable the findings are.
Finally, a rousing cheer for what the almanac reveals: daily triumphs of achievement by ridiculously under-resourced organisations. As Sara Llewellin rightly remarks in her foreword: "If a sector can bring about as much change as this one has with so little money, it must be incredibly strong."
The 89 organisations encompass relative giants with incomes of more than £3.8m and micro-groups with minimal income, but which serve their constituencies well enough to have lasted for 30 years or more. Non-LGBT sector data are included to give helpful comparators and context. Case studies, interviews and a full descriptive portrait of the 89 provide deeper insights and the necessary human faces to enliven the information.
Like all good data sources, the almanac identifies causes for celebration, but also raises questions. Chief among them is what more could be achieved for LGBT people if those organisations that need more resources actually had them? And another of the really big ones: are funders really interested in evidence-based policy? Because if they are, here is evidence of efficacy in abundance. So what is the response of funders going to be?
I recommend this slmanac to anyone who makes policy decisions about the sector and to anyone who wants to see a good research exercise well executed.
Fiona Ellis, chair of the NCVO Funding Commission and a past director of the Northern Rock Foundation