AccessEd #3 – Minding the Gaps

Bringing out some of the emerging themes from our consultation on capacity building, and what's coming up in September...

When I opened up our consultation with a google form where all comments would be shared openly, I had feared that we’d end up with the digital equivalent of tumbleweeds. Given that, it has been really encouraging that we’ve now had 30 insightful and considered responses, from a range of organisations and practitioners. I’m very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to share their thoughts, and want to use this post to pick out a few emerging themes from the answers to our first question: “Where can you see ‘obvious gaps’ in capacity building provision: what’s worked well (or not so well) in the past, and why?”. There’s a lot in there, so this is merely a few initial headlines….

To begin with a challenge: Andy from the Doncaster Deaf Trust highlights how far away from this part of the funding world some social organisations feel. “Loans frighten people to death. The message, all the way through, is confused by the talk of grants and loans in the same breath. The language needs to be much simpler”(my emphasis). Clearly, in whatever this programme does, we must attend to this aspect of ‘accessibility’: Andy’s further request to “Make the information [about social investment] simple, downscale and [present it in] just one space” has been echoed in a variety of ways in many of the conversations I’ve been having.

This also connects to a point made by Donald of Emmaus Salford, that for many coming to this world for the first time, the array of organisations operating in different roles can be confusing: “Exactly what each one does, how they relate to each other, which ones to attempt to approach and which would be a diversion of resources is very far from clear”.  It seems to me that Access is well-placed to contribute to a collaborative approach to curating or producing resources which clearly explain the fundamentals, introduce the different players, and help guide organisations through their initial research into whether social investment is right for them.

Regarding the next step on that journey, Tom, from Unltd captures in three words  – “bespoke, not standardised” – something of a consensus about what has worked in the past:

“Capacity building has worked well when it is delivered to meet the needs of the particular organisation” – Pal, Bhat Singh Sabha

“provision needs to be available locally and tailored to scale of organisation… one size doesn’t fit all” Jane, Vonne

For us, this presents a usefully crunchy challenge: bespoke support, working with organisations one-to-one, is necessarily resource-intensive, and hence will only directly benefit a limited number of organisations.  As we contemplate our strategy for the 10-year life-span of the capacity building programme, we must consider whether we can find ways of delivering such support – through eloquent partners – which can also provide meaningful indirect benefits to a much wider audience. 

Another recurring issue for the respondents, again reflected in the conversations I’ve been having, is the pressure on time within organisations as a key constraint on their ability to consider social investment alongside other options to achieve greater sustainability. Mandy from RLSB – “Core funding from the CE down to allow ‘business as normal’ whilst senior staff focus on developing its future business”: Adrian Ashton – “[you] need to make sure [external support] doesn’t disrupt their ability to keep running”. Both Hugh from Locality and Jane from Edberts House highlight the importance of ‘back-filling’ – funding to provide an organisation with the staff time required to get the most out of a consultancy process (such as that offered through Big Potential).

The following quotes also highlight the risk that we and our delivery partners – holding a loan finance hammer – find all social organisations begin to look like nails: Elizabeth, Community Learning Partnership – allow “organisations genuinely to build capacity, without necessarily having to have a ‘project’”; Jane, Vonne – “Organisations require capacity building to adapt to new markets, take advantage of contracting opportunities, develop and broaden income streams which all contribute to sustainability and may remove the need for loans and investment”.

Elizabeth and Jane also both point to peers as an under-exploited source of impartial advice: “Pair with an organisation that has successfully gone through a capacity-building process”. However, this does not come for ‘free’: “Peer mentoring is an obvious gap but can be challenging to facilitate due to organisational capacity”. 

Unsurprisingly, impact measurement merits a few mentions:

Chris, SIB – “A longer term focus on improving impact measurement could benefit many different organisations”

Tom, Unltd – “Social Investors should recognise that they may be the primary audience for impact data”

It is clearly an area for us to consider carefully: these recent posts asking “Who should pay?” and “Does the emperor have no clothes?” provide more evidence that this is an issue which will not be resolved quickly or simply.

Sally from NCVO/CES,  in suggesting that social organisations must “identify a basic theory of change, monitor a handful of key outcomes from it, and then use the data for decision-making” provides a neat segue from impact to use of data more generally. Anne of Visceral Business has found through her work with Charities that “data inventories are patchy and data strategy is not widely understood at a senior level”, while Gerald from Camden CAB points to possible cause – “it is virtually impossible to borrow for the technology and training required”. Meanwhile, at the other end of the social + technology spectrum: Paul from Bethnal Green Ventures  is concerned that there is “very little support or finance available for tech-based social ventures that are trying to show what they’ve built works”.  This very wide variation in social organisations’ ability to embrace the ever-expanding potential of digital technology is a challenge which we can’t afford to ignore.

With my good name as a pithy blogger in peril, I will resist the temptation to go on: although the struggle to keep this short serves to show the wide range of challenges in front of us. Briefly, then, what’s coming up in the next few weeks: meetings with Cabinet Office, the Design Council, NESTA, Centre for Charity Effectiveness, The Foundation (Beehive), Social Finance, EngagedX, VSNW, Swarm, Media Trust, Charity Bank, Unleashing Potential, Community Foundation Northern Ireland, NCVO, Power to Change, CLES and Co-Ops UK; a roundtable with some providers from the ICRF programme, and another hosted by NAVCA in Sheffield, with some of its membership. As previously advertised, I’ll also be working through my research reading list and using my next post to reflect on what’s contained therein….