Italian Philanthropy Forum

Impact goals and an evidence-based culture to go beyond “solipsism”

Three proposed points to foster alliances between social purpose organizations and overcome the tendency to work in isolation highlighted by Carola Carazzone, Assifero.

The year 2020 was characterized by dramatic transformations that deeply impacted on how people and organizations relate one another. Maybe, it will also be remembered as the year of the calls for unity, collaboration, shared mobilization among different countries, industries and sectors. The philanthropic ecosystem – broadly speaking, the one encompassing all stakeholders devoted to promoting positive changes for the community – did not make an exception. The European Philanthropy Statement on COVID-19 by DAFNE and EFC, the Unitus Europe platform by DAFNE, EFC, EVPA, GSG and NEF, or the pledge promoted by the Council of Foundations through the Philanthropy’s commitment during Covid-19 are just some examples. Whether they leveraged on sharing economic resources, tools or values, these initiatives called for stakeholders, different for nature and models, to come together to face a moment of emergency, transformation, and uncertainty.

In the following months, many players suggested a new way of operating based on systemic collaboration to overcome a “silos-logic” whereby each organization stands irremediably and quite melancholically secluded. Basically, an evolution that would turn an empathic movement, born out of an emergency, in a practice that might not only contribute to solve said emergency but, hopefully, continue beyond it, strengthening the ability of working together and providing more effective answers to urgent needs.

In my perspective, three interrelated points may help overcome what Carola Carazzone, secretary general of Assifero, quite properly described in a recent article as the “solipsism” of Italian organizations.

1. Networks based on impact goals

Carazzone’s article pinpoints a key issue: in the transformational period we are living and in months to come, each one of us has to put its goals back at the centre and clearly state the reason why “we do what we do”. As organizations devoted to producing positive effects, we have to refocus the why and the how, defining the Theory of Change guiding our action to lucidly express our priorities, values and goals. Whom do we work for? Do our programs make sense? Did we deviate from our original mission? Do we need to evolve to face new needs? This operation is fundamental for us in the first place, on a strategic level, to locate a North Star in a moment of uncertainty. But it is pivotal to clarify to other players possible points of union and difference. How many true and successful examples of alliances are we actually seeing vis-à-vis a (ubiquitous and claimed) desire to “collaborate” towards a (vague and undefinable) “systemic change”?

On one side, perfecting our strategic model can help us understand the opportunity of organizational alliances and frame the real added value each partner can bring towards specific goals. On the other, it is probably the moment to overcome – or integrate – the ecosystem of institutional representation based on juridical forms and operating modalities. We need a change of paradigm: if in some cases a shared legal status can help organizations discuss, for a sense of tradition and some common working mechanisms, this cannot be the leading driver anymore.

Even more, we cannot identify in the traditional “grantmaking vs operational” model the glue of such alliances, as Carazzone underlines. If what guides us is the creation of positive effects, then the establishment of networks based on shared thematic areas, goals and stakeholders might be the way to truly work together, going beyond all-purpose tables that reunite many organizations amalgamated by their form but limitedly inclined – oftentimes, unable – to collaborate in practice due to their heterogeneity of approaches, values and priorities.

2. Common tools and standards

Lack of a common culture cannot but hamper the possibility of collaboration. Partnerships can be facilitated, as discussed, by common interests and goals but they can only become real once shared standards are in place – ether to adopt them systematically or, if necessary, to overcome them. This implies that, before asking ourselves whether some approaches and tools may be obsolete, it would be important to check whether we have a common understanding of what we are talking about. To put this in practice, let’s take the example of the mistreated “logical framework”: we can discuss whether it still represents an adequate instrument but, maybe, it would be the case to answer some preliminary questions. How many organizations are actually able to use it? How many are adopting its most recent version or are stuck with obsolete ones? To what extent does this fragmentation of formats pose a burden for grant seeking organizations? Before criticizing the use of English as a communication standard, in favor of local dialects or the creation of a new language, it might be wise to have a proper knowledge of what we wish to overcome – and of what, whether we like it or not, currently constitutes a point of reference.

On the same line, Carazzone rightly suggests that philanthropic actors do invest “with a multi-capital approach on social sector organizations” to raise their sustainability chances, especially “in a Country where few organizations have a possibility to access European funds”. On the other hand, we may wonder whether we should give up completely the opportunity of looking for international resources or, rather, work to go past that kind of Italian self-absorption – moving towards internationally recognized frameworks. The creation of a common language (in terms of logics and tools), through peers’ dialogue and investment on the capacity building of non-profit organizations, can help us develop alliances with stronger bases – and, possibly, access opportunities beyond our national boundaries.

3. A culture of evidence and evaluation

Finally, if alliances must rely on common goals and shared tools, it is worthy to invest in truly understanding and evaluating the effects we would like to generate. This cannot by any means be reduced to compliance with that mythological monster we call “VIS” (“social impact assessment” as defined by the Third Sector Reform Law – author’s note). In its pretense to go beyond the – rightful – research of widespread accountability to make out sector more transparent, VIS as it has been formulated is creating a distortion that will push everyone to constantly communicate its “social impact” (whatever this means).

In my perspective, the problem is not in the lack of a shared standard of evaluation that each nonprofit should always and constantly adopt for each project. This reporting/communication logic is at the very heart of the problem (i.e., “Annual deadline is approaching, we have to measure our impact!”), as opposed to a sincere need of knowledge (i.e., “Does this specific project work to produce a specific positive change?”), and it is producing a terminological and cultural misunderstanding. The first one will only create chaos in the way each one of us will communicate results using the same words with different meanings; the second fuels the illusion that we can always measure and quantify our “impact”. For a serious analysis of what the true meaning of impact evaluation is, I recommend a recent article by Gian Paolo Barbetta who highlights the key point: “My proposal is to avoid losing time with the ambiguous word “impact” (and all its possible connotations) to instead try to answer, in the best possible way, the crucial question for anyone interested in improving our society. The interventions, actions and policies of social sector organizations (and public administrations) are actually able to produce positive changes in the lives of people?”

In order to establish strong alliances, where partners are able to define and understand the generated results, we have to invest in a culture of evidence that...

  • Goes beyond episodic storytelling, where the proof of success comes from anecdotes. The outbreak of the pandemic had, at least, the non-secondary value of putting back at the centre of public and media attention the concepts of data, research and evaluation. Would we accept the effectiveness of a vaccine based on evidences as “My cousin did it and he’s fine”? Then why should we adopt such a logic in our sector when we talk about the effectiveness of a program?
  • Is based on unambiguous terminology. We need to start talking of outputs, of observable changes (outcomes) and effects (impact) in the appropriate way and time. This mean avoiding evaluation marketing (again, would we accept the effectiveness of a vaccine based on statements such as “Its socio-economic value is 1,7”?) fostering a paradigm that recognizes evaluation as an engine to generate knowledge, enabling us to understand results and obtain information on how to improve.
  • Accepts failure. Finally, we have to realize that there cannot be collaboration if we don’t accept the fact that failure is possible. As recently discussed in a focus group, “by definition, innovation can be unsuccessful and this must not be hidden; on the contrary, it has to be shared, overcoming fear of disclosing failure”. This is something we have to work on in the traditional mechanism “grantmaking organization – operational organization”, to disrupt the idea of evaluation as a form of control and bring it back to its true meaning (see previous point). But it becomes even more pivotal when it comes to alliances and co-planning. Co-planning can imply co-failing. If we don’t acknowledge this fact, we will not be able to sit down at a common table without creating two sides: the one who feel put under judgement (and will tend to minimize risks and hide failures) and the other of those holding economic resources (inclined or perceived likely to point finger). What we need is a convening of allies working together, looking for solutions, and learning (from evaluation and possible failure) how to do better.

Covid-19 succeeded in uniting us: the will to survive and defeat a common enemy managed to provide a glue (the leitmotiv of every disaster movie, by the way). But to avoid going back to fragmentation and silos, we need specific goals to work together; shared tools and language to reach those goals; and clear, rigorous and learning-oriented evaluations to understand whether we are reaching those goals, whether we are failing, and what we need to refine. The saying goes “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. But collaborating and staying united requires efforts and it is unlikely we will be willing to endure them unless we know where we are going and whether we are on the right path.

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