Page Hero Image

Charity Awards 2018: ‘If charities aren’t focused on their user, then what exactly are they doing?’

What makes a charity an award-winner? What makes the great stand out from the good? Last month four members of the Charity Awards judging panel got together to discuss their approach with David Ainsworth.

The characteristics of a winning charity at the Charity Awards are tricky to define. However, Civil Society Media has run the awards for 19 years, and our distinguished panel of judges have a wealth of experience in working for charities and assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

We asked Andrew Hind, chair of the judges and former chief executive of the Charity Commission, to convene with three fellow long-standing experts to identify some of the best examples of charitable endeavour, and what other charities could learn from them. He was joined by Sir John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, Sir Christopher Kelly, a former senior civil servant who is now chair of the King’s Fund and a trustee of the Canal and River Trust, and Cathy Phelan, director of Civil Society Media and a trustee at Tate St Ives.

Have a clear vision

Judges discussed a number of features that are consistent among awardwinning charities. One key theme was clarity of vision. Judges were clear that it is hard for a charity to be an award-winner – or indeed to be an example of best practice – unless it is absolutely clear who it exists for, and what it is doing for those people.

“What you must absolutely have is a clear idea of the steps you want to take to get the results you want to get,” says Hind. “If that means not being as big as you could get because you would have to compromise on what you believe, that should be the decision you take.”

Phelan adds: “It’s about always having the service user at the forefront of their mind. If their actions aren’t absolutely focused on their user, then what exactly are they doing?”

This means letting users drive the direction of the organisation, she says. It means knowing what their top priority is. It means bringing together a community of individuals and not just listening to them but allowing them to speak.

KNOW YOUR END GAME Those around the table also felt that a great charity has a focus on growing good ideas. A really well-run charity is one that is constantly thinking about the most appropriate model for its interventions – whether it needs to change, or grow, or shut down.

In some cases growing an idea involves growing the charity itself – as with The Clink, last year’s overall winner, which trains offenders in catering to help them into work, and has set itself an aim to expand. But in other cases this involves the charity franchising to others, or persuading the private sector that the charity’s business model would work commercially, or changing laws or behaviours to such an extent that the charity could simply shut up shop and go home, its mission achieved.

Kelly says the sector can act as a sandbox – a place for interventions to be tested before they are scaled up. Its job is to try things and see if they work. A charity, he says, is not a delivery mechanism for state services.

“At NSPCC we changed our whole organisation,” he says. “It became about testing hypotheses and seeing if they would be picked up.”

Although, he says, too often the sector knows a better way of doing things, but it isn’t adopted. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that demonstrable success is enough to get something picked up elsewhere.”

Reinvent yourself

Following on from this, Hind says, the best charities constantly think about whether their business model still works for their beneficiaries. Is the charity delivering the right services, using the right channels, to the right people? Often when charities carry out a strategic review of their services, they find that many are not cost-effective, or not really what beneficiaries want. Sometimes the charity discovers that it should have been doing something completely different all along. This fresh perspective and continuous reinvention is vital, he believes.

“The charities which win awards are often those that have come in new and fresh with a vision and drive, and changed everything,” he says. “Or they’re long-existing charities which have seen something and decided to do something different.”

Speak with a strong voice

Hind feels strongly that a charity should stick to its principles, and say what needs saying. He gives the example of a previous winner, Mencap, which in 2011 launched a campaign to change the way the health service treated disabled individuals.

“It would have been so easy for them to say ‘that will damage our ability to win contracts’ and forget about it,” he says. “But they didn’t. They went ahead. It must have taken significant commitment to the cause, planning and preparation.”

Low says he gets suspicious when a chief executive seems to be the only one in a charity doing anything. “What I don’t like is when it’s all about you,” he says. “I listen to chief executives saying ‘I’m going to take this charity in a new direction’ and focusing on themselves. What about the trustees? What about the staff? It’s about building a consensus and showing collaboration.”

The best charities, says Kelly, are those which ask for help when they need it. “People need help,” he says. “The good charities get the support they need. Their chief executives get together with other people and they learn.”

Mentoring, he says, is a fantastically useful resource – for those giving it as well as those receiving it. Phelan agrees. “The really good charities are fantastically well networked,” she says.

Good communication isn’t limited to listening, or convening, or asking, says Kelly. It also involves transparency.

This does not mean providing reams of data, or producing hundred-page reports. It means making it very clear what you are doing and why. It involves identifying the people who need to know what you are doing, identifying what they need to know, and going to where they are to make sure they receive the necessary information in a way they are willing and able to listen to. It then means gathering their feedback, and acting on it.

Measure your effectiveness

Another of Kelly’s key principles is impact. He believes that a charity must know, and be able to demonstrate, the good it is doing in the world.

On one level this attracts complete agreement from those around the table. On another level, however, it is fraught with difficulty. Not least because of the difficulty of comparing one intervention’s effectiveness with another.

Low says that Nice, the nondepartmental public body which assesses the evidence of effectiveness in health interventions, uses a standard measure – the qualityadjusted life year, or “qually” – as its way of addressing impact, and this might be a formulation the sector can adopt. The measure tracks how much longer an intervention makes a person live, and how much it improves life satisfaction in each of those years.

Low wonders how often the sector focuses on that which can easily be measured, rather than that which is most effective. Most larger charities exist to ameliorate systemic inequalities, he points out. But many other charities simply exist to make life better – either by bringing communities of people together, or by creating art, or music, or theatre.

“We only ever consider the extent to which charities correct wrongs,” he says. “But I’m interested in how we take our society and make it better, rather than just less bad.

“I worry that our obsession with impact sometimes makes it hard to recognise things which have real value, because they’re harder to measure.”

Arts charities and animal charities, he says, find it harder to demonstrate their effectiveness – the former because all the measures of effectiveness are soft outcomes to do with feelings, and the latter because the beneficiaries rarely respond to satisfaction questionnaires.

Kelly, too, recognises that while measuring effectiveness is important, charities must also take care not to get hemmed in with numbers. “Part of the beauty of the voluntary sector is that you don’t need to count everything,” he says. “It’s about people pursuing causes they are passionate about, and that passion has immense value of its own.”