CENI Director: Why we are the evaluation champion for VCSE sector

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VIEW was delighted to get the support of Community Evaluation NI (CENI) for our latest issue which looks at social impact and making a difference. Below is the editorial written by guest editor Brendan McDonnell, director of CENI

From an early age I have been interested in building and fixing things – anyone remember air-fix kits, or mecanno sets? Or simply taking things apart to see how they work and trying to put them back together again. I suppose that’s what evaluators do; they have this need to find out what organisations do, understand how they work, and how they could work better.

It’s what I’ve done for most of my career – from community development worker to social researcher, ending up as an evaluator – inevitable I suppose. For the last 20 years as Director of Community Evaluation NI (CENI), I’ve helped Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprises (VCSEs) and their funders understand and demonstrate the difference they make.

CENI is the evaluation champion and infrastructure body for the VCSE sector. It provides contextualised expertise and support. We have helped hundreds of VCSEs plan, measure and communicate their impact. As a result, they can deliver better services that make positive differences to their communities. We have also helped funders to evidence the impact of their funding programmes and so inform more strategic investment in the VCSE sector to stimulate social change.

Two decades of inter-sector working in Northern Ireland, means CENI has a unique understanding of the contexts, drivers and challenges experienced by statutory bodies, funders and the VCSE sector. We also have wide networks that give early warning of emerging issues and technical developments. CENI has drawn on this knowledge to create tailored methodologies, such as ‘Measuring Change’ which enables different stakeholders to co-design programme outcomes and capture the change delivered.

Our expertise was one of the reasons the Building Change Trust appointed CENI to manage the ‘Inspiring Impact’ programme to promote better impact practice in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we can say that CENI has developed the cultural understanding and the technical expertise to help our constituency respond to challenges of the emerging policy and funding environment.

The draft Programme for Government (PfG) sets out how the Northern Ireland Executive will deliver their priorities. In a change from previous programmes, this one is underpinned by an outcomes-based approach. An outcomes-based approach is challenging. It demands that government ministers, officials and those they fund, consider not only what they are doing but, crucially, what difference they intend to make and the extent to which people are better off as a result.

I welcome the challenge of an outcomes-based PfG. I am not alone in thinking it is long overdue, that said, it is vital that public funders and their VCSE sector recipients are made ready for the challenge of an outcomes-based approach to funding.

Some departments are training staff in the techniques of Outcomes-Based Accountability or OBA™ methodology and identifying indicators.

However, research commissioned by the Inspiring Impact programme found there was a need for further clarity around what an outcomes focus would mean in practice, in particular, how current programme design, appraisal and monitoring systems would adapt to an outcomes-focused approach given the prevailing emphasis on financial regulation and compliance. Outcomes are delivered by people. And those people need to be prepared. This means more than a training session in technicalities; that is vital, but first there must be exploration and conversation about how the foundations of public funding will need to shift to fit the new, outcomes-based approach.

Through the Inspiring Impact programme, CENI is seeking to support public funders and the VCSE sector to help bridge this gap between the vision for an outcomes-based approach and the potential for operational delivery. This includes consultancy support and bespoke tools, such as Measuring Up (which helps funders and VCSEs to assess the impact readiness of their organisation) and dedicated demonstration projects to help organisations embed their impact practice.

This work is ongoing so look out for our exchange events throughout the year where we will be putting the pieces together and sharing the learning.

LATEST ISSUE OF VIEW: We look at social impact and making a difference

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