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02 January 2014

Thursday 2 January 2014

Taken from blog piece originally written for Third Sector Online (www.thirdsector.co.uk/Management/article/1225374/rosie-ferguson-often-talk-good-play-down-bad/)

At London Youth, a network of youth clubs in the capirtal, we have three organisational principles: to be honest, collaborative and committed to improvement. These sound straightforward, but to really live and breathe them is far easier said than done. Sadly for the sector, all three can at times feel like they are going against the grain.  

Take ‘honesty’. When was the last time you heard a chief executive at a conference talk about all the things they’ve failed at in the past year and what they’d learnt? There is often too high a tendency to talk up the good and play down the bad – but if we’re all as good as we say we are, then why don’t we have a greater collective impact? Maybe this protection of our egos or those of our organisations is just human nature. But if we can share the failings better, then we might be able to stop recycling the same mistakes.

It isn’t all our fault. We’re often incentivised by funders and commissioners to compete and over-claim on ‘innovation’ and ‘distinctiveness’ for short-term gain. And of course there can be a tension between, on the one hand, wanting to promote aspiration, pushing boundaries and trying new things and, on the other, the need to be realistic about what is achievable. In my experience, the best funder-grantee relationships are based on honesty, collaboration and commitment to improvement – and discussing openly the pressures these tensions create.

Real honesty is also about what we’re prepared to hear from others. It is all too easy to read work by those we agree with that reinforces our existing worldview. But sometimes reading things that are more painful to hear are crucial if we are to improve. A recent report by the Resilience Consortium, for example, showed a huge difference in perception of the quality of youth work between youth organisations and young people themselves. For London Youth, an organisation that champions youth work and youth clubs, there were some challenging home truths in this. But it is only by getting them on the table and thrashing out what isn’t good enough and how we do better that we will continue to deliver our mission to maximum effect.

We have been guilty at times of a top-down approach to programme design, where senior staff and fundraisers create programmes that sound great and meet a funder’s needs but in reality will not make the kind of significant change that is claimed. We’re now using a more rigorous combination of evidence and evaluation, involving young people and youth workers more meaningfully in design and adopting a ‘test and learn’ approach as we start implementation. We’ve got a long way to go, and the tight deadlines of statutory funding opportunities don’t always allow us to be as thorough as we’d like to be. But I know that the programmes we’re designing now have stepped up in both the outcomes they deliver and our ability to evaluate them, even if that means learning that some of what we do doesn’t work.

If as a sector we are serious about collaboration and improvement, and thus committed to our collective impact being greater than the sum of our parts, we need to start being more honest about our where we can do better.