Treasuring the Immeasurable

Yesterday I came across an article that really struck a chord. I’ve been at Social Finance just over two years and am proud of the work we do, and have nothing but respect for my colleagues’ dedication. We’ve been doing some fascinating work with data analysis and learning how to use the data we collect to improve social outcomes for vulnerable members of society. We focus on defined target groups, clear outcomes metrics, and evidence based interventions which are relatively low cost compared to potential public sector savings. It occupies my 9-5 but at the end of the day I know that what we do is adding just a fraction of value to society. I could tell you what fraction because the structures we devise require precise measurement. But, pardon the pun; we should never discount the immense contribution from charities whose impact cannot clearly be defined.

It was something David Robinson wrote in Charity Times that led me thinking down this route.

“The development of the hospice movement over the last 50 years would be high on my list of the third sectors greatest achievements but it hasn’t reduced the benefits bill, got the unemployed into work, or equipped the next generation to be economically active. It is, however, civilising, humane and, for those whose lives have been touched by it, of immeasurable value.”

This sensitive, humbling example made me think back to a phrase from Sir Gus O’Donnell I loved when I first heard. “If you treasure it, measure it.” (I work in communications so a snappy line always goes down well). But slowly I’ve been questioning the word of G.O.D. For civil servants undertaking a spending review it’s important to know how many people your cuts will affect. Using the hospice example however, where on earth do you start? But I’m sorry G.O.D; the work of Macmillan nurses is something I hold desperately dear.

A clear social mission has always been at the heart of every piece of work we’ve undertaken; be it children on the edge of the care system, rough sleepers in London, ex-offenders in Peterborough. We measure because it goes hand in hand with the financial mechanisms funding the work.  Savings may accrue but this is only from commissioning the best possible service for the client in the most efficient way, and has never been the main driver.

Again going back to David Robinson who speaks from experience and more eloquently than I ever could;

“Charity is not first and foremost about saving public money and, though many of us will argue that we do, it is not why we are here”.

If you are bidding for a contract the ability to demonstrate the impact of your service is crucial; this can be your competitive advantage. But it is heavy work that requires a certain type of employee. In Peterborough we call him Data Dan and he works tirelessly on measuring the impact of every single intervention in order to improve the service, and justify the expenditure to investors. This growing focus on impact measurement is important for my industry but for the social sector as a whole it’s not the be all and end all and I can understand why some people will be finding it frustrating.

David Cameron’s Big Society perhaps has been unhelpful branding towards a movement that has been flourishing for years and years. The Neighbourhood Watch teams making streets feel safer, the casserole left on an elderly neighbour’s doorstep – there is no point measuring the cost of these, because the value is something you will never be able to calculate. Call it Big all you like, but this type of grass root charity simply is our Society. I hope it can continue in this way and not have to divert resources into measuring the immeasurable.

It is important to be transparent in evaluating the work we do, and also to recognise that there is value that we have not yet learnt to measure.  So, to conclude with words from David Robinson, “Let us not become the generation of third sector leaders that knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

By Sarah Henderson, Communications Analyst at Social Finance

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