Charities and social enterprises can benefit greatly from investing time, effort and resources into becoming more effective organisations. However, this can often be hard to achieve. Day-to-day demands – delivering services, managing staff, trustees and volunteers, securing ongoing income – can leave little space to reflect on the trajectory of the organisation as a whole.

This is an issue that is widely recognised across the social sector, and the momentum is growing to develop a set of strategic, collective responses. Over the course of 2017, a group of grant-makers, social investors and infrastructure bodies worked together to share their experience of designing and delivering capacity building support. This was based on broad agreement amongst all involved that such work could be more targeted and effective if there were more coordination and consistency between the funders and providers of such support.

Currently, social organisations in the UK lack a simple, standardised way to highlight their strengths and weaknesses as organisations, identify their development priorities, and explore their options for accessing capacity and capability building support. A number of different tools and services to meet this need – commonly referred to as ‘diagnostics’ – already exist, and have been widely used in recent years. The VCSE Strength Checker and PQASSO are two well-known examples, amongst many others.

This range of diagnostic tools and services already in use was an obvious place to start exploring the opportunity for collaboration. A ‘show and tell’ session in May, in which a group of funders and social investors talked through the diagnostics they had been using and developing, established a collective will and vision to develop a shared, open approach which could underpin all of these tools.

Research subsequently conducted by Lloyds Bank Foundation over the summer of 2017 looked at 17 of these tools in detail, and established that they all cover very similar ground. Key characteristics of organisations such as leadership, finances, systems and communications are interrogated in all cases, with some minor differences in emphasis and style.

In October, a session hosted by Wellcome Trust brought together over 40 professionals from grant-making, social investment and infrastructure bodies, to review these findings, and build on the vision of bringing greater clarity, consistency and coherence to the whole endeavour. Some key issues were raised and discussed:

  • There are a wide variety of diagnostic tools and services available, and it is not clear to charities and social enterprises which would best meet their needs;
  • Typically, these tools and services are tied to grant funding or investment, either as part of an application or after funding has been approved. Organisations might not choose to go through the process of their own accord, and the presence of a funder/investor may introduce bias;
  • All of these tools and services require users to enter a lot of information manually, which is time-consuming and subject to human error;
  • None of these tools and services connects to each other, draws on existing sources of data, or allows users to ‘carry’ information from one to another in ways which could avoid duplication of effort, and provide them with a sense of change over time, or comparison to other similar organisations;
  • There is insufficient information about when and how the findings of a diagnostic process are translated into actions, and the impact of any actions taken.

These discussions framed and informed what has now become the Open Diagnostic project. This three month project has been co-funded by Lloyds Bank Foundation and Access Foundation, and will see us continuing to engage with the broad range of organisations involved up to this point. Our top priority right now is to take this conversation out to the charities and social enterprises all of these organisations exist to support.

Between now and June, we will build and test a basic prototype online diagnostic, which will make best use of existing sources of data, such as Charity Commission accounts and 360Giving. In the first instance, we’re interested in producing as valuable a set of information for social organisations as possible, based on as small an amount of data entry as possible.

This will involve drawing on publicly available data, aggregating and presenting it ways designed to be accessible and informative. We’re also interested to combine such data with other sources, via social organisations themselves, as well as that held by those that fund, invest in or otherwise support them. This could include data collected via existing diagnostic tools, grant applications and monitoring forms.

This obviously raises issues about data sharing permissions and privacy. How can we ensure that any such service exercises its proper duty of care in handling sensitive data, meets regulatory requirements and is trusted to be accurate, up to date and secure? We’re also concerned to challenge ourselves on inclusion: would some organisations be less able to benefit as they are not well-represented in the currently available data? Who might be sidelined by a data-led approach, and what should be done to enable them to join in?

To help us work through such questions and understand how the service needs to work, we are committed to taking a ‘user-led’ approach – which simply means we’ll be asking the people we want to use the service what they think at every stage. Based on what we learn over the coming weeks, we will develop a strategic plan for an open, shared and collaborative approach to supporting organisational development within the social sector in the UK. We’ll also be running a light-touch ‘concept testing’ survey, to gauge wider interest in such a service and gather suggestions, questions and concerns.

Based on what we learn over the coming weeks, we will develop a strategic plan for an open, shared and collaborative approach to supporting organisational development within the social sector in the UK.

I’ll be posting to this blog regularly to give updates on progress, and would welcome your comments and suggestions.