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Making it easier to get the right support for learning and impact practice

Kirsty Gillan-Thomas, Research and Evaluation Specialist
Ruth Pryce, Senior Grants Manager

Improving effectiveness in the youth sector

Learning about how we can understand our practice and its impact, helps us all to better assess our own effectiveness. For many of you who work with young people and are reading this, getting the right support to help you understand and increase your impact will be a familiar challenge. But a challenge that is also vitally important – and one that Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) has been exploring to ensure we are all using our resources wisely and supporting young people to thrive.

What do we mean by learning and impact practice?

To be clear, by ‘learning and impact practice’ we mean any activity that supports an organisation to improve its effectiveness based on appropriate evidence. This might include a focus on the quality of the service, innovation or refinement in the design of services and strategic planning, as well as the more obvious tasks of measuring, monitoring and evaluating impact. It is likely to include elements of reflection, discussion and engagement with a range of stakeholders as well as data collection and analysis.

In the first instance, even being able to assess and diagnose what is needed to improve your impact practice can be a frustrating and confusing experience. Then, finding the right support to meet those needs is a further challenge. We hear feedback from organisations we fund about these difficulties, and so we have been thinking: as a funder, what is our role, and what should our response be?

Mapping the youth sector and support landscape

To help us shape our response, we commissioned a project to map the landscape of learning and impact practice support for organisations working with young people in the UK. We wanted to explore the type of support available, its objectives and the specific area of impact that support focuses on. We hoped, perhaps naively, that this might allow us to find a way to create a menu of support providers, or to find a way to better match the needs of youth organisations with the offers of support providers.

What emerged from the project was a slightly different picture. The analysis, by Oxford Impact Consultancy, proposes a model that maps youth organisations and the support available to them according to the desired outcomes for these organisations regarding reach and effectiveness. The model suggests that most support provision is focused on supporting youth organisations with relatively small reach and not yet optimal effectiveness. For these organisations, impact practice support is commonly treated as a technical issue, rather than a cultural or strategic one. The analysis highlights a particular dearth of support to help organisations learn from their work, therefore, it seems that this support is not necessarily aiding the improvement of services or development of effective practices as much as it might.

Various factors, including funders’ requirements and short term funding cycles, appear to discourage organisations from taking control of their own impact and learning practice. They can get stuck in a cycle of accessing support that addresses needs in a piecemeal fashion, or only consider impact practice in a narrow way as an add-on, rather than central activity, to the organisation’s core work.

The report also highlights the uneven geographical spread of support provision, in particular its London-centric nature.

This analysis provides a different lens through which to view the challenges that youth organisations can face: there are more dimensions to the issue than we had anticipated. Whilst we do not yet have a clear direction of travel – and recognise that we may not be the ones best placed to instigate change – we hope that by sharing the findings of this work we can start a discussion about these issues, and get feedback on:

  • whether this model is helpful to understand the landscape of learning and impact practice support;
  • the report’s recommendations; and
  • the potential roles of the different parties involved, including funders like PHF, to influence this ‘marketplace’ and try to make it work better for everyone.

We’d like to acknowledge the generosity of all those who took part in the interviews, giving up their time and sharing their views to inform this work.

We welcome comments and critiques on the work and would be keen to open up the discussion around ways to proceed. Please share your thoughts with us evaluation@phf.org.uk

Read Mapping the landscape: Impact and learning practice support for organisations working with young people in the UK

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