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Take the long view

Take the long view
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Take the long view

Finance | Don Bawtree | 23 Feb 2009

Impact reporting must not become prescriptive, argues Don Bawtree.

I understand that Oxfam are claiming (on beer mats) that they are building Utopia, as part of a new campaign to engage the public in their work.

I received today a report from Raleigh International. They had consulted with more than 100 former Raleigh ‘venturers’ from disadvantaged backgrounds who had been on expeditions between five and 20 years ago. The group included young people who had experienced a range of difficulties in their life such as unemployment, homeless-ness, drug and alcohol problems, mental illness and violence.

Here is just one finding. The research found that, inter alia, 89 per cent reported an increased ability to lead or encourage others and 87 per cent to work as part of a team.These two examples are at very different ends of the impact reporting scale. Both are to be commended, it seems to me. Oxfam are looking forward, and clear what they are about, what strategists call the ‘general idea’. The other is looking back, and has commissioned research to understand thoroughly what has been achieved over the course of many years.

Where these two statements converge is in their sense of time. Many charities are not able to measure meaningful achievements within the space of a year, and therefore will have limited means to say anything useful in the context of an annually produced document. I was talking last week to the chief executive of a campaigning charity who told me, to both our surprise I suspect, that for them, this year, it was ‘mission accomplished’. A brilliantly run organisation has essentially achieved what it set out to do. A one-year report would show very little impact…the need has been reduced and reduced year-on-year. It is the long view that tells the story. And, of course, the renewed long-term vision.

The Charity Commission had an opportunity to develop the idea of impact reporting in its example public benefit reporting, related to the (fictitious) Dorsetshire Drugs Advice Centre. The section where the annual report addresses benefit would be a natural home for dealing with impact. Well done, Charity Commission, for not adopting the ‘this is what we said we’d do/we did/we will do next year’ mantra. The report might seem light on external or internal benchmarks, but it does reflect some of the real challenges with trying to report on impact: working with partners confuses the cause and effect, some things are intuitive (the café’s bright and cheery atmosphere is assumed to be a ‘good thing’), and some things are simply regarded as too obvious to require further comment, such as clean needles = less infection.

So well done Oxfam for setting a vision, even on a beer mat: charity reports need to be put in context, and the context is the vision, reflected in the governing document and the strategy.Well done Raleigh International: you can’t always measure impact and effectiveness simply within the confines of an annual report, and you can’t always do it without extra work and costs, though you can show some progress.And well done the Charity Commission, for not overengineering this aspect of the specimen annual report.

A great privilege of my job is seeing what so many different charities are achieving. And because every organisation I meet is different in some vital respect, I am increasingly convinced that a common or rigid framework for impact reporting would be dangerous. Even a cursory study of school league tables makes the reader appreciate the need for more information.

There is of course a case for benchmarks and performance measures, but impact reporting will often not fit within easily defined frameworks. Whilst annual reports need to address areas like effectiveness and achievements, the fact is that few people read these documents. Better to communicate impact in a different medium (including beer mats), over a longer timescale, and with a solid knowledge base.

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