“The impact has always been there, but we hadn’t been able to actually evidence it before.” (Emma Pears, CEO of SELFA)
SELFA is a local children’s charity, based in the town of Skipton, North Yorkshire, covering the entire Craven District area. Set-up in 2007 as ‘Skipton Extended Learning for All’ by Chief Officer Emma Pears, the charity nurtures and supports over 400 vulnerable children and young people aged 4-19 through enriching experiences to enable them to be the best they can be. The team at Coalition for Efficiency first came across SELFA when the organisation applied to be part of the Measuring the Good programme.
Since taking part in the programme, the SELFA team have continued on their impact journey – with further support from Coalition for Efficiency and some additional funding they secured – and grown to become a charity with a strong learning culture at its core as well as an impact measurement embedded throughout. We interviewed Emma Pears, SELFA’s Chief Officer, to capture SELFA’s story and inspire other small charity leaders to take their own organisations on a sometime challenging but ultimately rewarding impact management journey.
The starting point
SELFA’s transformation started in 2016. While Emma Pears and her colleagues instinctively felt that they were having a positive and often transformative impact on the children’s and young people’s lives, they were struggling to evidence this, and the data they were collecting did not reveal what they were observing on the ground. The organisation was quite clear on its mission and objectives but in its first 10 years of existence it struggled to find a meaningful way of capturing outcomes and impact. Emma Pears: “We would collect data and think we’ll use the Outcomes Star and that will give us what we want, but it would give us quite skewed data. Many times I was thinking, hang on, I was at this activity and I know what the children got from it. This kind of self-evaluation with the children and young people wasn’t really working for us. We also had loads of issues with the time it was taking and teams saying, ‘I don’t have time to do this’. It wasn’t embedded in our organisation at all.”
Emma describes SELFA’s working culture at the time as being very much delivery focused: “There was no long-term planning in place, no strategy. We needed to develop all of these skills within. We needed a framework and for that we needed somebody external […]. We also needed to strengthen our governance. We had a very supportive board, but they only met quarterly[…]. They lacked the skills that we needed at the time.”
Research into other existing impact measurement tools or for consultancy support did not uncover an approach that seemed to be a good fit for a small organisation, until SELFA received an email about the Measuring the Good programme and they decided to apply.
After SELFA’S initial application and scoping interview, the Measuring the Good team decided to partner them with Professor Neil Lunt in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. Neil identified a group of his Masters students who were interested in helping a local charity with a research or impact measurement challenge.
The ‘messy’ transformation process
So started a period of accelerated change for SELFA. Antonia Orr from Coalition for Efficiency guided SELFA through the entire process, regularly checking in with Emma and Neil. To begin with, the students went through an intense period of learning everything they needed to know about the charity, including a site visit. The group also carried out external research and finally presented their findings and recommendations to SELFA. Around the same time, SELFA began exploring different CRM systems for data collection, storage and reporting, settling on a customised version of Salesforce. During much of this period, Emma also received mentoring support through Pilotlight to develop SELFA’s business plan and strategy.
The principal goal of the Measuring the Good project was to develop a bespoke monitoring and evaluation toolkit. Emma and her colleague Rachel, SELFA’s Youth & Impact Co-ordinator, collaborated with the students who offered their feedback, insight and suggestions. In hindsight, Emma thinks this is one of the strengths of their current approach: “We now have a monitoring and evaluation toolkit that is linked to academic research to back up our work. And it has helped to be able to say we worked with a university to develop this system.”
The implementation phase, after Rachel had developed the draft toolkit, was in Emma’s words “very messy”: “A few of us had developed the toolkit, but concerns were raised by staff on the ground about the practicality and implementation of the toolkit. They said, ‘this isn’t going to work on the ground’ and ‘we have tried this before and it didn’t work’. So we had to go back, look at some of the other recommendations from York and do a bit of research ourselves.” At this stage, they were still struggling to produce tangible change within the organisation and realised that they needed more engagement from others in the organisation and to spread the ownership: “Everybody had to buy into this process, from the staff on the ground all the way to the trustees, everybody had to buy into this new way of thinking and of doing things and had to be involved in developing it, particularly the staff who were working directly with the children and young people because they know best.”
Antonia, Emma and Rachel decided to guide staff members and trustees through a Theory of Change workshop which proved to be a useful exercise to engage others in the process. In the months following the workshop, Antonia continued to provide regular feedback and support to Emma and Rachel which helped to maintain focus and momentum as they implemented the changes.
While the journey was challenging and took longer than expected, the results have been overwhelmingly positive and the organisation has succeeded in embedding a culture of learning and impact management: “Overall, we slipped by four months, but in hindsight that needed to happen because we had to make sure that the tools we had developed were going to measure what we needed them to measure. That’s where most of our learning took place, in that bit where it all went wrong! The key thing for us was that Antonia walked especially the last part of the journey with us, that made the difference. We needed somebody to keep us on track.”
More than a year on and the transformation is complete: SELFA’s toolkit which was launched in July 2017 is in full use and produces data that is genuinely useful for the organisation, both to measure outcomes but also to make important delivery and management decisions. Most importantly, they are improving how they support the children and young people who are at the core of what SELFA is all about. Emma gives one example: “Recently Rachel was looking at our data and it was showing an increase in independence [amongst children and young people], but actually they weren’t showing as much growth in the area of building self-esteem. So for this term she has looked at activities that have been identified through the toolkit and the academic research that are building self-esteem and concentrate on those.”
Governance has also seen a step change at SELFA: “In trustee meetings monitoring and evaluation is now always part of the agenda which is new. We now also have a monitoring and evaluation sub-group which includes one board member who has a background in environmental impact measuring. He will soon be attending a two-day training on SROI for which we secured some funding. It’s great for us to have that level of expertise within the organisation. The subgroup meets every quarter and looks at all the data and also updates the monitoring and evaluation action plan.”
The embedding of monitoring and evaluation doesn’t stop there: “Staff’s personal development plans now have monitoring and evaluation as a KPI, and we have included it in job descriptions as well as part of a job evaluation process for the whole organisation. Staff have definitely bought into the idea of it and have taken on extra strategic roles because they know it helps us. It is almost like this is now the new norm of continuous improvement. We discuss objectives in annual appraisals at the beginning of the year to make sure all of these things are actually delivered on the ground. That’s a big change for us. And everybody is aware that from time to time they are required to do work to help develop the organisation. They have bought into that and are very much clear on what is required of them.”
One of the more recent additions to SELFA’s work is the SELFA passport of which there are different versions, depending on the ages and challenges the children and young people the charity works with. The SELFA passport, which is already proving invaluable, identifies six different social objectives (e.g. independence, self-esteem) and encourages the children and young people to work on the areas through a list of recommended activities linked to these objectives. As a result, the children and young people can take ownership of their progress and demonstrate their personal achievements. At the end of every year, the charity also runs a SELFA Awards Night during which children and young people are given awards based on the passport data, e.g. Arts Award, Young Leaders Award.
Overall, the painstaking route has been more than outweighed by the benefits for Emma: “There has been a strengthening in our organisational leadership and management. We have also increased the number of children we work with from 350 to over 400 per year and our income has increased significantly (by almost 70% in the last year). I definitely think it’s because we have better planning and better strategic-thinking, and everybody is able to support each other. We have seen a real increase in inclusion of children and young people, and our board are bought more into the idea that we need to involve young people more at the core of the charity. Monitoring and evaluation is a thread running through the organisation now at every level with a focus on impact. But we are not losing sight of the fact that the most important part for us are the relationships with the children and young people, monitoring and evaluation has enabled us to spend more time building these relationships. “
Does Emma have any advice for charities who might be in the early stages of their journey or are finding themselves at that ‘messy’ point? “You have to be ready as an organisation and be on the same page. You need certain things in place, and you need to be collecting the same data in the same way. You have to have buy in at every level and commitment from everyone. You don’t really need extra money, but people need time to be freed up. At the end of the day everyone believed in what we were doing. But you are reliant on your team on the ground to make this work. As a result, we have been able to broaden our support and that has been the best thing.”
What about the students from the University of York who helped get some of the building blocks in place for SELFA? According to Professor Neil Lunt they also benefitted greatly: “The students found the project interesting and worthwhile. For many it was the highlight of their Masters Programme. They were able to develop their skills and knowledge and make a real contribution to the organisations they worked with“.