The Fragility Index

Access Learning blog 2: Director of Learning opinion piece

The first introductory blog last month, from Access’ Director of Learning, explored some of the recent changes we’d witnessed to the learning function within funders and foundations over the Covid-19 crisis period. The blog explored which of these changes might be beneficial to endure into the “new normal”, to shake-up the current approach to learning and ultimately, to support organisations to deliver social impact.

This next blog looks back on Access’ emergency response during the first few weeks of the crisis from a data perspective. This is again through the lens of what we hope might endure into the recovery phase. What we can learn from the response back then that might still ring true going forward.

As stated in the previous blog, part of Access’ response to the crisis was to relax certain reporting requirements to reduce the burden on busy front-line organisations. Access also took a strategic decision not to undertake any new primary data collection directly with the charities and social enterprises we support through our programmes. This was in part a reflection of the rapid insight gathering we understood that others were already collecting. Predominantly though, it was because Access knew its delivery partners (who hold the close relationships) would be much better placed to understand the needs of organisations and relay that back to Access to inform decision making.

Instead, in order to help inform its response, Access looked to its existing data & insight. This was both to understand the starting point for organisations pre-crisis (in general how resilient were they and how much support might they need now and in the recovery phase from Access) and to understand where there were patterns/ trends in fragility (which organisations across our programmes were likely to need different types of support).  

Access enlisted the support of our Learning Partner, TI, to look at our data. We did this across our programmes but the most notable work to share here is from the analysis of our Growth Fund programme data. The Growth Fund is a blended finance partnership programme between The National Lottery Community Fund, Big Society Capital and Access. It is delivered by social investors who lend to charities and social enterprises.

TI developed a Fragility Index for the Growth Fund. This Index was based around a set of data we already knew about organisations who had received an investment through the Growth Fund prior to the crisis.  The purpose of this Index was to support Access and partners in understanding where organisations were at pre-crisis, in terms of how fragile or resilient they were. This was to help inform decisions around how best to respond during the crisis – i.e. what types of support and how much support might organisations need now and in the recovery phase from Access – based on what we know about the organisations before. This insight would form one important piece of the decision making puzzle.

There are some limitations to the data in the Fragility Index. Firstly, the data was collected for organisations at the point of investment. Not only is the data we’re looking at pre-crisis therefore, for some organisations the data is also now out of date as things will have moved on since investment some time previously. Secondly, the Fragility Index could also only be built on the data that Access already had (as we didn’t want to undertake any further data gathering at this time). This means that certain data points that might typically be used to test financial resilience are missing (e.g. current assets and liabilities). However, Access and our learning partner felt that data was good enough to act as a proxy for financial resilience.

The Fragility Index was drafted; iterated and finalised over the course of ten days. The following dimensions were built into the coding of the Index. For each of these dimensions below there is an explanation as to what the measure/ indicator used is and why this is an important element of fragility.

The Fragility Index also recognised that not all dimensions are equal. TI therefore applied a weighting to each indicator (following consultation around what judgements to make) to create an overall fragility score. The model of these weightings is detailed below. Internal weightings refer to, for example, the difference between the fragility of arts & leisure organisations and community energy, or affordable housing; and the external weighting refers to, for example, the importance of low levels of assets compared to the interest rate on a loan.

TI then plugged all the data into a network visualisation tool called Kumu. The results can be viewed by many different factors and dimensions but it is perhaps most interesting to represent the data by the different social investors in the Growth Fund to generate the heat map below. Each dot represents an investment in the Growth Fund. The deeper the red colour the more fragile the organisation and the larger the dot the bigger the investment.

This data tells us many things – we can begin to see clusters of resilience for some social investors and hot spots of fragility for others. But perhaps the most useful insight for Access during the emergency response phase was in understanding the overall fragility of the Growth Fund portfolio. This isn’t surprising, Access and partners already knew that the Growth Fund is distributed more towards higher levels of deprivation and towards organisations with lower turnover and lower balance sheets than the social economy as a whole. This is built into the ambition of the Growth Fund to reach smaller charities and social enterprises with smaller amounts of repayable finance that typically hadn’t accessed social investment before. Whilst this wasn’t surprising, it was useful to visualise the data in this way to inform and confirm high-level thinking around Access’ response. It was an important piece of the puzzle alongside feedback from Investors; real-time case studies and the sophisticated insight being rapidly generated elsewhere.

Where we go next with this work is an interesting question for Access, and one that others in the learning community will no doubt be grappling with around their own data and insight. Access developed this Fragility Index to support its thinking and response in a time of crisis, but this sort of insight is valuable in “normal” times as well.

As discussed in the last Learning blog, we have arguably seen during the Covid-19 crisis a greater interest from funders in the financial health; sustainability; fragility and resilience of the organisations they support. The question is could or should this endure? Once the decision has been made to fund/ support an impactful organisation delivering good work – could the burden of data reporting shift away from outcomes and impact? And instead towards how the organisation is able to thrive; adapt and learn?

In Access’ next learning blog we’ll look at a recent piece of evaluation from our Local Access Programme. Again to explore what lessons about learning we think will still ring true and endure in the recovery phase.