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Beware the ‘Anti-Social’ Sector

20 November 2014 at 11:12 am
Xavier Smerdon
Impact measurement, with a focus on collaboration rather than pleasing funders with “pictures of sad children, is key to avoiding an “anti-social” sector as charities compete to stand out, a Sydney Conference has been warned.

Xavier Smerdon | 20 November 2014 at 11:12 am


Beware the ‘Anti-Social’ Sector
20 November 2014 at 11:12 am

Impact measurement, with a focus on collaboration rather than pleasing funders with “pictures of sad children, is key to avoiding an “anti-social” sector as charities compete to stand out, a Sydney Conference has been warned.  

Tris Lumley, Director of Development at UK consultancy and think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) delivered the keynote address to an audience of Not for Profits, corporate, researchers and Government representatives at the Think Outcomes conference impact measurement, urging the sector to move from an 'I' to a 'we' mentality.

Lumley said that while his organisation’s research showed a greater use of impact measurement that was delivering “real” benefits to charities, funders continued to drive measurement efforts, not charities themselves.

“[Funders] want to start off with pictures of sad children, and end up with pictures of happy children…It brings in the money, but it undermines our work,” he said.

“As a sector, what do we do? We give them what they want. Fundraisers will do what they need to do to get the money.

“If it’s funders who are setting the requirements…we end up in a lot of trouble.

“Organisations start to have a lot of data, but that data is driven by reporting, not learning…I think it’s a danger, I think it’s a real risk.”

Lumley said that where funders’ demands took priority in the raising of resources, organisational survival was often forced to take priority over mission, resulting in a lack of lasting impact.

He warned of a developing “cult of individualism and uniqueness,” as organisations strove to distinguish themselves in a competitive environment.

“You can end up with a dysfunctional system. Organisations aren’t bad to reflect their own interests. It’s a rational response to a dysfunctional system.”

“If we’re not careful, we could be working in an anti-social sector, not a social sector. We’re here to serve people – but there’s a danger that all of our behaviours say that we’re in this horrible anti-social sector, where it’s about us, and not the people we’re here to serve.”

Lumley made it clear to the audience that he did not want his address to come across as overly pessimistic. Effective impact measurement, he said, could help avoid the negative results where there was a lack of strategic funding and a lack of strategic activity.

“I think we need to recast impact measurement within this system as a thing that fuses raising resources and delivering interventions, focusing on the true stories of it changing people’s lives… We build from the bottom up then we influence from the top down,” he said.

He called on the sector to build a collaborative approach to impact measurement, have clarity around the different roles of charities, funders and investors, Government and social enterprise, focus on the “real” questions that different stakeholders needed to answer, and develop different tools and approaches for different purposes.

“We need to say, ‘how do we do this together? How do we go out to the people we aim to serve and say, “What are the priorities in your lives?”

“Start talking to people, start acting with people as the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’.”

Lumley said leadership, incentives, capacity and culture would prove key within organisations involved in a future “ecosystem” of impact measurement.

“I don’t want to terrify you and say that in order to create progress we have to create this massively complex vision and start working on it all at the same time.

“We should ask, ‘what’s the question that we’re trying to answer’ with impact measurement? I don’t think we often say that.”

Opening the conference, Associate Professor Kristy Muir from the Centre for Social Impact had similar reflections on the Australian context.

“The good and the bad news about systems is that if we change one part of the system, we can get a different outcome…It’s urgent enough that it’s time to do something differently, to act differently,” she said.

“One of the things I think has really held us back has been fear of sharing values, sharing lessons…as a researcher, maybe I can say I’ll only do work on projects where there is a commitment to sharing, and to openness of results.”

Reflecting on the  estimated $300 billion that Australia spends per year on social outcomes, intervention and policy, SIMNA Chair Simon Faivel agreed there needed to be a strong consciousness shift around sharing in Australia.

“Part of it has to do with an ‘I’ mentality…the isolated, atomised view of social impact and the need for us to think ore about ‘we’, when ‘we’ as a society, spend all that money. It’s one big area, and shift from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’,” he said.

Think Outcomes, hosted by the Centre for Social Impact in partnership with the Social Impact Measurement Network of Australia (SIMNA) and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), is focused on the measurement, analysis, evaluation and communication of social outcomes.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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