Peers have struck the right note for modern civil society

There is much for the charity sector to get behind in parliament’s vision of civil society fit for the modern age, but it should be wary of expensive mistakes on evaluation, argues independent trust Power to Change.

The House of Lords inquiry into charities, published today, offers a useful way for government, business and the voluntary sector to think about the years ahead.

Bringing civil society closer to business

The Committee recommends that government ‘takes fresh measures to get more senior business leaders directly involved with charities to foster those relationships and maximise their value’.

Vidhya Alakeson, the Chief Executive of Power to Change, said:

The committee is absolutely right that government should encourage civil society to become more business-savvy. There is so much expertise in the private sector, and voluntary groups should jump at the chance to share in it.

We see great examples of community businesses who benefit from the advice and skills of local businesses. If large employers got help from government so that staff could do more with community groups, this would be very good news.

This is part of a bigger movement. Grants will always have an important role to play, as the report recognises, but the old-style public grants system has less and less capacity to deliver. Many groups, led by community businesses, are already focused more on their trading profits than applying for grants, precisely because this is what will guarantee their chance to do good long into the future’.

Better impact evaluation

Gen Maitland Hudson, who gave evidence to the inquiry and is Head of Impact and Evaluation at Power to Change, said:

The committee raises interesting points about impact measurement, and parliamentary focus on this work is welcome.

However, while independent evaluation has its place, any suggestion that it should be the default option would be wrong. It can be expensive, timebound, and rarely looks across different providers of charitable services. It can even be unhelpful, since the commissioning of the evaluation itself all too often stands in for reliable longitudinal data.

A better solution is regular, embedded collection and analysis of operational data. This can give charities, community businesses and other groups the reliable evidence they need to make good decisions.

Platforms that support that collection will also allow for comparison, which drives evaluation and allows groups to make sense of their work. Aggregated data analysis of that comparative data is, in its turn, a reliable guide for funders and commissioners, at a time when both are rightly under scrutiny.

We do not need further initiatives and guidance. We need growth in the sector’s development of practical means for collecting and using evidence’.

 Social value commissioning

The Committee rightly raises concerns that the ‘commissioning landscape is skewed against smaller charities’.

Vidhya Alakeson said:

Community businesses come in all shapes and sizes, including organisations with expertise gained from saving assets across a whole city. It is essential that groups like these, who have all the skills and know-how to do a great job, and are accountable to local people, get a fair hearing from councils’.

Power to Change will be publishing new analysis of the Social Value Act later this year.