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Creating a report to prove value and tell your story

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Citizens Advice share their experience of producing a full impact report, allowing them to tell the complete story of who they are and what their value to society is.

Background

The Citizens Advice service aims to provide the advice people need for the problems they face and improve policies and practices that affect people’s lives. As a service we:

  • deliver advice to solve individual problems, and provide education to empower people to help themselves in the future
  • undertake research and campaigns to solve collective problems
  • benefit society through the way we work.

We help people online, over the phone and face to face through our network of local centres, which are all independent charities, rooted in communities across England and Wales and operating in 2,500 locations. In 2014/15, we helped 2.5 million people directly with 6.2 million advice issues, and had 20.7 million visitors to our website.

Our interaction with clients gives us a unique insight into their needs and concerns. We use this knowledge to campaign on big issues, both locally and nationally. So one way or another, we’re helping everyone – not just those we support directly.

The issues we faced

As an organisation that sees so many people, through varied types of intervention in many different subject areas, how do you make sure you’re doing justice in your impact reporting to who you are and what you achieve, as well as what you can evidence? Our challenge has been to put a credible value on a service that does so many things, and that literally can change lives.

Producing something that’s not robust would be more damaging than productive, this forces us to really consider the arguments we want to make and where we have most evidence. This approach means we can only put a monetary value on a fraction of what we do, sticking instead to what we know and can firmly evidence.

As a result, we can’t just communicate our value in strict financial terms, as this only gives part of the story of our impact on society and therefore underestimate our true value. Some of the crucial things we do we can’t put a pound sign on.

But as a charity with little individual giving, and instead reliant on statutory funding and grants, we need to respond to external demands to prove our value to society, increasingly in financial terms.

The actions we took

Rather than producing a strictly financial document, we’ve produced a full impact report, one that would allow us the opportunity to tell the complete story of who we are and explain what we consider is our value to society.

The simple fact is that no answer, concept or model of social value is perfect. Any definition has to take into account the broader context and external drivers, as well as our primary beneficiaries and audiences. Over the last few years, we’ve had to continually review and challenge our conception of our impact and social value, creating a framework for current and future impact-work, as well as considering whether what we’ve produced is an accurate representation of our worth.

Inspiring Impact products such as The Code of Good Impact Practice, as well as the sector-produced Principles of Good Impact Reporting, have been invaluable reference points for our team, providing an independent voice to help influence colleagues of the importance of getting this right.

In creating this report, we’ve gone back to basics by:

  • Redefining the key arguments for why we exist, the need in society we meet and what we achieve for those we work with and for.
  • Re-articulating our theory of change and considering how our key activities work together for a common purpose, to help people find a way forward.
  • Drawing on our organisation’s in-depth knowledge of how unresolved problems can escalate and how our interventions work in practice, working with subject specialists.

In producing a financial estimate we:

  • Identified some of the main areas where we can demonstrate we have a positive impact, drawing extensively on evidence from our national outcomes and impact research undertaken last year with 2,700 clients.
  • Applied these arguments to a tool produced by New Economy and approved by HM Treasury, that’s given us confidence that our assertions of the fiscal benefits and wider public value of our work are robust and credible.
  • Considered where our management information can enable us to talk about the financial benefits to individuals that result from advice, a concept that doesn’t fit within the tool but that is crucial to our theory of change.

Positive outcomes

We’ve now produced an impact report that we can stand by and that accurately portrays our service. It’s a snapshot in time of our impact practice: our work is ongoing, but we’ve been building our evidence and using standardised measures over many years. It’s a long-term process and we’re part way there.

We’ve been closely involved with many areas of the Inspiring Impact programme and have been able to bring the thinking and impact leadership skills developed there to our organisation’s practice and to this report.

We now have a benchmark for what good looks like - both in terms of what we achieve as a service and in our impact practice. We can truly say that we’re an organisation that does what it sets out to do. Spreading this message internally as well as externally has been important, to remind staff and volunteers that their efforts really make a difference.

Working with the New Economy tool has been a real success, giving us a credible estimate, and we’ve greatly benefitted from guidance given by their economics team on how best to apply their model to our work.

Negative outcomes

The breadth of our service makes producing a coherent and succinct report a challenge. Moreover, as we wanted to bring people with us through our impact narrative, we needed to produce something that would communicate the same enthusiasm and urgency that inspires people to volunteer for the Citizens Advice service and makes our work so vital. We haven’t shied away from explaining our complex subject matter, but have also communicated the personal stories of those whom our service acts as a lifeline at a time of need.

We’ve also seen first hand how using off-the-shelf models can be difficult for an organisation that has multiple activities and works across many subject areas. There is no mechanism to include many of our primary benefits within the existing modelling and so they have not been ‘counted’ in our financial estimate. A prime example of this is the significant value in helping clients reschedule debt - amounting to an estimated £464m last year - benefiting clients themselves and their creditors who otherwise might not have been repaid.

Lessons learnt

There is a balance to be had between the benefits of using approved methodology and downsides of giving a false impression that your value is less than it actually is or that aspects of your work have less merit. We’ve drawn on our extensive management information to find a solution, creating a new category of ‘benefits to individuals’ to address this gap.

This process has enabled us to see the gaps in our evidence and understanding. For instance, we don’t yet have the same level of sophistication in our arguments around the impact of our education or policy work. We’ve been transparent about this, listing what our financial estimate includes and doesn’t include, as well as producing a full technical annex of our workings.

Spelling out where else we think we add value, this ensures that these crucial aspects of what we do are given equal-weighting and are not forgotten, as well as outlines the next steps and challenges in understanding our impact.

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Page last edited Jul 10, 2017

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