Our understanding of how change happens has evolved since we started in 2015. In response to what we’ve learned, we’ve grown from having a direct focus on developing the social investment market to a broader focus on helping charities and social enterprises become more resilient related diversifying their income, which in turn should increase demand for social investment.
Our strategy describes how we’re pursuing this under three themes:
- Enterprise development: Providing £40m to support a broad range of enterprise development activities in partnership with others;
- Blended finance: Managing and promoting blended finance models;
- Listening, learning and sharing knowledge: Listening to the changing needs of the sector and learning from our programmes
The way we want to work is perhaps as important as what we’re trying to achieve. We have a fixed lifespan of ten years. Working with and through others who share our broad goals is therefore something which is not only desirable, but essential for us to have real impact. Therefore, we aim to embody the principles of network leadership: Trust not control; Humility not brand; Node not hub; and Mission not organisation. This means actively collaborating and helping the sector as a whole to learn.
Our short lifespan makes learning even more important. We need to learn as we go, not when we’ve finished.
So, what does good look like for Access? Working with our learning partner, the TI Group, we identified six indicators of transformation that need to be present in all of our activity that relates to our capacity-building initiatives, as well as our learning in general. These have helped shape our approach to measurement as well as our measures of success. We’re sharing the report about how we came to these conclusions online so you can see how this all fits together here.
Falling out of this work, our main measures of success are:
- Increased resilience of charities and social enterprises in pursuit of impact – we will look for evidence that Access has enabled charities and social enterprises to:
- Diversify their income through enterprise activity
- Access social investment where appropriate
- Generate a surplus and/or strengthen their balance sheets
We will draw on quantitative data as well as feedback from programme users. Without this, we can’t show that we are achieving our mission
- Perceptions of quality of Access’ capacity building support and social investment programmes – we want to understand the experience of charities and social enterprises related to their engagement with Access, as well as the experience of those providing support and investment to the charities and social enterprises – all in the context of previous programmes and initiatives. We want to know what has worked well and what needs improving from the perspective of the diverse sectors, geographies and contexts that Access engages. In order to make the most of our ten-year lifespan we need to be able to make improvements to our programmes in a timely and efficient manner.
- Increased understanding, adoption and collaboration around income diversification and blended finance throughout the wider sector – for Access to make a significant difference and have an enduring legacy, we need to influence the wider conversation about the use of grant subsidy in social investment (blended finance) and the various ways charities and social enterprises can become more resilient through diversifying their income. We will track the extent to which a strong cohort of investors, funders, providers and other bodies has formed around these issues, and to what extent Access is influencing this.
- Use and application of the evidence base that Access is developing – this tests whether our learning is shaping our practice and potentially that of others. We want to develop an evidence base related to what works for income diversification for charities and social enterprises in light of potentially receiving social investment. We want to track the extent to which this evidence base is offering value to charities and social enterprises, both directly and indirectly through helping investors, funders, providers and other bodies.
- Needs of social enterprises, charities and communities are addressed in diverse contexts, particularly those often excluded from investment and support – we want to “lead with the need”. Social investment and capacity building support need to reach more widely and be accessible to a range of different organisations, for instance in terms of turnover, location and the people that they serve. We will track our progress by collecting data related to the different types of organisations we are engaging, and in doing so identifying who might be missing and why.
Our approach is to measure just enough to effectively inform our learning – and no more. We have sought to design ways to measure our impact without imposing an unnecessary or excessive burden on Access and, crucially, the charities and social enterprises in receipt of our funding.
To know if our programmes are working, we will build an evidence base of data from our enterprise development and investment activities. Over time, this will allow us to understand the business models that best work for charities and social enterprises who are growing or seeking to grow their enterprise activity. We are approaching this task from the perspective of how we can make this data most useful for charities and social enterprises. We want to move beyond performance-based metrics towards the generation of knowledge which improves the work of others seeking the same goals. For example, this will help us with decision-making regarding a range of hypotheses which the Reach Fund is testing about incentives and behaviour. This will allow us to tell a richer story of how change happens in the sector.
We believe that we can learn best by having conversations and listening. We will seek out feedback from all of the stakeholders in the system in which we operate: from peer organisations, social enterprises and charities, funders, investors, infrastructure bodies, and membership bodies. As we said in the Strategy:
We will continue to identify the forums, networks and individuals which best capture and tell us the experiences and needs of charities and social enterprises when it comes to the role that enterprise development and investment can help play in building resilience. We will listen to those messages, and in particular seek to hear from those who have not yet benefitted from social investment. We will seek to summarise and analyse those stories to both make better decisions and also create a feedback loop to share stories back to charities and social enterprises and influence future behaviour.
Combining what we hear from those conversations with the data we are able to use and interpret we will then seek to analyse, add meaning, tell the stories and ultimately embed learning. This will involve ensuring that there is active feedback; seeking to check context and patterns in what we are seeing and hearing; attempting to screen out bias, group think and self-interest and other distortions, and test our interpretations.
For Access, impact measurement is not just about our own programmes – although we do want to know and show that they have made a contribution – but increasingly about the health of the networks, partnerships and overall systems in which we operate. Our work does not exist in isolation and we can do more by understanding where things work well and where they don’t, in concert with other organisations and initiatives.
Overall, we will be adopting a process of transparency instead of targets. We will openly publish our data as well as our interpretation of that data. Our work is often more about experimentation rather than executing a blueprint, which makes having specific targets unhelpful. Furthermore, in complex work involving many partners in varying roles, targets can create perverse incentives when used inappropriately. By being transparent and sharing progress in real-time, we can understand more about whether our work is having the desired effect and change course if needed.
We are committed to learning. The new strategy discusses how we’re responding to the evidence we’ve gathered so far. Our understanding has already shifted, and we expect the data we gather to lead to further changes in our perspective. We hope that it can help inform yours, too.