UK (City University of London) Guests discuss the major issues facing measurement of charities’ productivity

By City Press Office (General enquiries), Published Tuesday, 18th July 2023

Leading figures from the Government, charities and other sectors came to Bayes Business School (formerly Cass) recently to discuss the charity sector and related issues around productivity and funding.

Co-organised by the Centre for Charity Effectiveness (CCE) at Bayes and Pro Bono Economics (PBE), the working dinner followed the publication of PBE’s “Productivity of purpose: Bringing charities into the UK’s productivity drive” report, which was released in January 2023.

Hosted by Alex Skailes, Director of CCE, and with Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chair of PBE, opening the discussion, a lively conversation ensued.

Some key points that came out of the discussion included:

  • Productivity – In terms of productivity and sector output, and in an era where money is tight, there is an even greater need for hard-baked evidence of the impact to secure funding. For many organisations, it remains difficult to quantify what they are doing, although this is not a statistical issue that’s unique to the sector, given that similar issues exist within other sectors focused on public goods, for example, defence and intelligence services. Current estimates place the contribution of civil society as between 1 and 10%, and most likely being towards the higher end of that scale. In particular, a recent PBE paper found that just one section of the non-profit sector account for 4.4% of GDP, though this doesn’t account for the whole of civil society, as some inputs are outside of the GDP boundary, such as volunteering, and some parts of the sector are hard to isolate in the data.
  • Wellbeing – It was universally acknowledged that the sector plays an enormous role in contributing to the wellbeing of the nation, but a greater emphasis is needed on the role of civil society, and its contribution to this to enable enhanced communication with the government. The nation’s wellbeing should be central to any government strategy, current or future. Attendees highlighted that we have a strong and impactful sector that is playing a critical role in this, but stronger dialogue is required, and data would support this.
  • Investment – Inevitably, it will be investment that solves many of today’s challenges, and it is capital investment that is required to solve the productivity challenge. Collaborative working across and within sectors, and the need for collective impact were cited as being required to create maximum impact and to enable adequate levels of capital funding to be accessed.
  • Data collection and sharing – There was agreement that formal measurement is important, and that data collection requirement by funders and commissioners need to be proportionate for the diverse organisations within the sector (and that it may be in a different form to that already being debated). Several people made the point that charities need to rethink how they work together and present to the government. The argument was also made that data is useless unless it is answering the key questions that have been identified. Further insights are much needed, but attendees also highlighted that we need to know the questions that we need answers to. In addition, the challenges of creating standardised data and long-term consistent data sets were discussed. All of which require investment in terms of time and money.

Speaking about the event, Alex Skailes, Director of CCE, said:

“We had a wide-ranging conversation that was representative of the diversity of the sector – from the sector’s role in contributing to economic growth and prosperity, the difficulties in measuring this, and the different ways in which it can be measured. In addition, we also spoke about the importance of collective impact and the need to work more closely with corporates to share knowledge and avoid the reinvention of the wheel.

“There will undoubtedly be significant teething challenges. We all agreed that to gain full recognition of the role charities play there is a need for more insight into the productivity contribution, but first, the big questions that we want to centre measurement on still need to be identified, otherwise the limited resources available to spend on data collection will not result in the full recognition that we seek.”

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, added:

“It was a pleasure to hear from such a broad range of expert voices. Amid the variety of perspectives set out, it was also encouraging to see such a strong consensus around the importance of strong and generous leadership in the sector as a means of driving continuous improvement.

“Above all, the importance of trust once again came to the fore. Offering a space for those who have low levels of trust in the state and the private sector is one of the sector’s undervalued superpowers, but too often we see a gap in trust between charities and key decisions makers in the policymaking world. Data – of the right sort – provides one means of bridging that gap, providing hard evidence of the returns that the country as a whole could enjoy from greater investment in the sector and its capabilities.”