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17 June 2015

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Originally posted on The Social Innovation Partnership website here.

A network of youth organisations learn how to be sustainable

Dimitrios Tourountsis is Head of Learning at London Youth. He joined the organisation in January 2013 to help develop evidence-based practice and lead London Youth's work on leveraging knowledge. Combining hands-on frontline experience of engaging young people and the community with a strong research and management background, Dimitrios has worked for more than 15 years in the third and public sectors.

London Youth let the world know it had a “hunch” about the benefits of youth work delivered in informal settings where young people chose to go. We said this work would lead to broadened networks, increased confidence and better skills, ultimately resulting in improved life prospects.

That was back in 2011, at a time when the youth sector already faced crippling funding cuts. Existing business models became obsolete, organisations felt disoriented and practitioners pessimistic. At the same time, the sector lacked a concrete set of data to support its work, meaning attempts to challenge the cuts were largely rejected.

Cutting through the state of confusion, London Youth wanted to provide leadership by focusing hearts and minds on quality, learning and being accountable to young people, London’s communities and funders. We directed our energy towards learning how to sustain, to endure without compromising or giving up. It was pretty obvious that sustainability in a fast changing and challenging landscape would be a critical success factor for youth organisations – and that meant being able to adapt and improve decision-making based on these principles.

We wanted to demonstrate our impact in a robust and easy to understand way. So we went back to the drawing board and designed better programmes, by supporting our practitioners and managers to ask meaningful questions, define success, develop theories of change and collect relevant and proportionate evidence. By remaining faithful to our mission, we improved decision-making and adapted our organisational planning processes to accommodate our nascent but growing evidence base.

After two years of hard work, everyone at London Youth lives and breathes learning and impact measurement. From previously anecdotal know-how – supported by observation, personal opinion and tradition – to our first learning report where evidence is explicit, we set ourselves the task of building the virtuous cycle of learning, and our leadership is now firmly grounded on knowledge and data.

Beyond our programmes for young people, we also support and advocate on behalf of our member youth organisations. As an early adopter of The Centre for Youth Impact, and with the support of Project Oracle, we have worked with four members of our network – Laburnum Boat ClubWac ArtsThe London Bubble Theatre Companyand The Winch – to help them understand and measure their own impact.

Through this experience, we have realised that leading the evidence journey of a network of youth organisations is, in essence, an exercise in the politics of trust, engagement, and exploration.

Trust

Accountability at London Youth is not simply about compliance with laws or standards, but is more deeply connected to our mission and building trust with beneficiaries and stakeholders. We helped our members to focus their attention on accountabilities that really matter – within and outside their organisations.

The main component in a youth worker’s toolkit is the commitment to build relationships and win over young people’s trust. We asked practitioners at our member youth organisations to extend the politics of trust; to overcome their skepticism and focus on learning and adapting to a new context.

Engagement and exploration

Learning at London Youth is a process that takes place in an evidence-based and social context. The main mechanism that practitioners use to learn is through modelling of behaviours and observations. London Youth encouraged and strengthened social learning by engaging staff directly in programme design and evaluation. Managers and practitioners explored and debated ideas, created theories of change, and devised research questions for programme evaluation. Teams felt engaged and they are now influencing each other informed by robust evidence.

We employed the same two-fold approach to help our four members with their learning journey. Firstly, we focused on engaging practitioners and managers. We listened carefully to their concerns, and discussed their beliefs. We learned that practitioners want to be treated fairly. Secondly, by modelling behaviours and sharing our approach, we explored their ideas. Our four members are now using theories of change and robust evaluation designs to understand and demonstrate the impact of their work.

We know we still have a long way to go to get this totally right. In the next two years, we will use the same key principles to build and sustain the virtuous cycle of learning and accountability within our diverse membership. Supported by The Centre for Youth Impact and Project Oracle – and thanks to a generous grant by the City Bridge Trust – London Youth will work with 20 more member youth organisations for the next two years to propel them along the evidence journey.