Grantmaking and Civil Society in the Age of Coronavirus

Grantmaking and Civil Society in the Age of Coronavirus

It was President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”  We cannot downplay the devastating impact of coronavirus on local communities. However, as we begin to transition from the emergency response to the pandemic and plan society’s long-term recovery, there does appear to be a window of opportunity to define a new form of social contract and radically rethink relationships between government and civil society.

Adversity is Breeding Ingenuity

Rocket Science has worked with several local authorities to review and advise on their relationship with their local VCS, including Camden, Harrow and, currently, RB Kensington and Chelsea and Hounslow.  Our work with Hounslow Council involved a wide-ranging review of its partnership with the local Voluntary and Community Sector which underpinned the subsequent Thriving Communities Strategy, 2019-23. The Council now sees the post-COVID Recovery as an opportunity to accelerate, if not extend, the Strategy’s ambition to change the authority’s relationship with the local community and put local voluntary and community organisations at the heart of its decision making and service delivery, working alongside local businesses, social enterprises, individual residents and partners.

We have recently worked with King’s College London as an evaluation partner for the pilot year of their Civic Challenge. The Challenge brought together teams of students, staff and local charities to work together to co-create solutions to some of the challenges faced by communities in Southwark, Lambeth and Westminster. Teams have competed for six awards of £5,000 to implement their designed initiatives.   


Post COVID – what constitutes Civil Society in the 2020s?

The scope of a post-COVID civil society might be gleaned from the Prime Minister’s recent request of Danny Kruger MP.  Before his recent election to Parliament, Kruger was an adviser to No.10 where he was instrumental in drafting the government’s wide-ranging Civil Society Strategy Building a Future that Works for Everyone. This argued that a modern civil society has five foundations – people, places, the social sector, public sector and business.  Kruger has now been asked to report by the end of July on proposals for a “better system for supporting our communities: more local, more entrepreneurial and more trusting.”

Rocket Science has worked with several independent funders who have been keen to review their role and remit.  Both Wimbledon Foundation and the Westminster Foundation have recently refocused their strategic objectives and funding priorities following a process of consultation and benchmarking. 


The importance of place

The growing interest in place-based giving is in part a reflection of the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that in the words of the Civil Society Strategy “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”  Rocket Science is working alongside the growing number of Place-based giving schemes in London. Pre-Covid they were tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society; they could now be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and 

give more as a way of reaffirming that sense of place and belonging. 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.

We have also been working with the Young Westminster Foundation and with oneRichmond (a partnership between Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fund) to conduct youth needs analyses in the City of Westminster and in the LB of Richmond respectively. These have involved consultations with a wide range of youth practitioners, alongside the recruitment and training of young peer researchers.  Peer-led research has enabled young people comfortably to explore issues such as mental health, physical health, crime and access to education or training and identify suitable support and services in these two seemingly affluent places.  We are currently working with both partners to update our findings given the added pressures created by Covid-19.

L&Q Foundation have been aware how smaller charities have been impacted by Covid-19 and have sought to ensure that funding remains available where it is needed. As the managers of the Foundation’s Placemakers Fund, Rocket Science have worked with L&Q to relax criteria around funding eligibility to allow smaller charities to apply for more. The priorities of the Fund have also  encompassed new areas of support which have become even more vital since Covid-19, such as supporting those suffering domestic abuse.  We have cut the time taken to process grant applications in half to enable grantees to respond more quickly to the challenges facing their clients.


The role and responsibility of business in civil society’s recovery

If business is one of the five foundations of a modern civil society, what should we expect it to contribute to the recovery?  Our work in assessing the local impact of Covid-19 on jobs and businesses at MSOA level is showing correlations of high risk both to businesses and communities, particularly in places which are reliant on micro-businesses.  We have also seen that services to support businesses and people are less likely to be accessible, highlighting gaps as well as opportunities for a hyper-local response to bring communities together in the recovery process.  Covid recovery represents a moment to work more intelligently with local employers, using the levers of government, like the Good Work Standard, to reframe our asks of business such as local job guarantees, or community pay-back schemes in the form of place-based giving of time or resources once businesses are back on their feet. 


For further information on Rocket Science’s grant-making services please contact: or to discuss our work with civil society organisations:

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

The Review of Reviews Reviewed…

The Review of Reviews Reviewed…

The past is constantly being reviewed and reinterpreted through the lens of the present.  John Griffiths, the author of last year’s Review of Reviews looks back to see what we can still draw on from several pre-Covid strategies to inform our future planning for civil society’s recovery . . .

Recent weeks have seen our country’s history re-purposed as we search for lessons from historical precedent to explain our current predicament, selecting what moments to reference, or whom we choose to venerate or denigrate.  As the government’s borrowing surpassed levels last seen during the Second World War, the Prime Minister needed little prompting to resort to Churchillian war-time rhetoric, speaking of the virus as the “hidden enemy” and summoning the “Blitz spirit” to foster social unity and community action in the face of the pandemic. 

Whilst some question the appropriateness of these particular analogies, parallels with the social impact and legacy of the War are pertinent. Perversely, they also offer hope to those who see the 2020s, like the 1940s, as an opportunity to effect lasting and transformative social change.  

Referring to how the First World War hurried on the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky observed that “war is the locomotive of history.”  Another 20th Century Goliath, J.M. Keynes, argued similarly that it is “politically impossible for a capitalistic democracy to organise expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiments [economic transformation] — except in war conditions.”  Indeed, recent histories of the last century provide considerable evidence that “the reduction in inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war [1].”   

It is these war-like conditions, brought on by our response to the coronavirus, which provide a window of opportunity to capture the zeitgeist, define a new form of social contract and rethink relationships between government, civil society and business.  And yet, as we begin to look for pointers and lessons from the pandemic, and find some succour from the community endeavour and social ingenuity born of the crisis, it is easy to overlook that many of the UK’s sociological failings had been laid bare well before Covid-19 shone an unflinching light on them.  

It would be a mistake, therefore, not to go back to some of the detailed pre-Covid analyses of c21st civil society, and of how we already needed to change.  As another blog in this series has reflected, the UK’s social evils and levels of inequality in particular, which were in plain sight before the pandemic, are now accelerating.  Whilst the Age of Coronavirus may prove to be the “tipping point,” confirming our commitment to resource and enable a healthy civil society, we could also tip the other way. The stakes have never been higher.

It is barely eighteen months since the wide-ranging Civil Society Futures’ Inquiry reported its findings. The underpinning research report, Civil Society in England: Its current state and future opportunity was far from alone in failing to foresee a global pandemic, but it still presented a daunting analysis of other forces shaping our future, ranging from the fracturing of society and irreversible environmental damage, to transformational political and economic restructuring; from growing personal precarity, to increasing geo-political uncertainty and rising nationalism.   

The Inquiry recommended a shared PACT, a set of principles for underpinning civil society’s future, which stemmed from its extensive consultations. The magnitude of the impact of Covid-19 may be such that we need to co-design “a different kind of conversation than the ones we have been involved in before.”  Nevertheless, as we potentially frame a new set of guiding principles for “building back better,” the PACT merits revisiting if only to learn whether we could indeed do better:

  • Power: significantly shifting power, sharing more decision-making and control, being a model for the rest of society and doing whatever is needed so that everyone can play a full part in the things which matter to them.
  • Accountability: holding each of us and our different organisations accountable first and foremost to the communities and people we exist to serve, changing our approach so that we become more accountable to each other and to future generations.
  • Connectedness: broadening and deepening connections with people and communities which is a key purpose of civil society and critical to healing a fractured society; bridging economic, social and geographic divides and investing in a new social infrastructure for civil society.
  • Trust: (re)building trust – what the Inquiry refers to as civil society’s “core currency” and foundation; earning this by staying true to our values, standing up for them and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them.

Four themes which connect the reviews also remain as relevant to our recovery from Covid-19 as to our healing of the UK’s entrenched social divisions, which Brexit initially exposed and the pandemic has now exacerbated:

1. Today’s adversity is breeding ingenuity, particularly in the form of individuals’ and communities’ social action; elective democracy’s apparent crisis may be participative democracy’s opportunity, yet this is not a zero-sum game. Ensuring a healthy future for civil society is both an individual and collective responsibility, not a requirement of others.  The Covid-19 mutual aid website records as many as 740 groups having formed within the M25 alone. Feedback from a GLA survey suggests groups’ memberships average around 400-450 with over a quarter defined as active.  Engaged and responsible citizens are the bedrock of a modern civil society; the 20th century may have marked the hegemony of state-funded support, the c21st “needs ‘people power’ more than ever [2].”

2. The parameters of what constitutes civil society in the third decade of the c21st are much broader than was thought previously. Neither defined by organisational form, nor as a specific “third” sector, but in terms of objective (what it is for) and control (who is in charge), a modern civil society “refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control [3].”  The new Recovery Board for London, has a twin focus on the economic and social aspects of recovery. Our having agreed aspirations and expectations of the future role for civil society in this endeavour will be one way of ensuring that these strands of work do not become siloed or, worse still, operate at odds with one another.

3. The potency and importance of place in galvanizing social action, and as a focus for philanthropy (defined as the giving of “time, talent and treasure”). In part this reflects and complements the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them [4].”  Place-based giving schemes in London which, pre-Covid, seemed to be tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society, could well be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and give more as a way of reaffirming their sense of place and belonging.  The 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.

4. Changed expectations of the role and responsibilities of the business community – coming from both inside and outside companies – were interpreted by the reviews as indicative of how boundaries between the private, public and voluntary sectors have become increasingly porous; how so many of today’s social challenges demand not just partnership working, but cross-sector solutions. There is an entire section of the government’s Civil Society Strategy devoted to the private sector, one of five foundations deemed necessary to build (back) thriving communities.  However, Centre for London’s extensive survey of giving in the capital cautioned that while London’s businesses give around £330m per annum – about 6 per cent of the total across the capital – corporate philanthropy is not having the impact it could, as employers fail to apply the rigour they bring to their business to their charitable activities.  Centre for London called for a “whole city” approach to “giving more, giving better and giving together” – based on a shared understanding of the capital’s philanthropic priorities.  

Two years previously, just prior to the last Mayoral Election, London’s Fairness Commission argued for “the start of a new philanthropic age . . . an exemplary social philanthropic effort at a city level to focus on the challenges facing London’s poorest citizens.”  Four years on, as we try to recover from the biggest disruption to civil society since the War, the time is surely now for London’s leaders to crystallize that “Peabody Moment.” 

[1] Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) p.20;  See also: Peter Clarke The Locomotive of War: Money, Empire, Power and Guilt (2017).

[2] This statement from the Cabinet Office’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) has echoes in New Local Government Network’s (2019) thesis expounding the “community paradigm” of empowering and resourcing communities to create a non-hierarchical culture of cross-sector collaboration.

[3] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.19

[4] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.20

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

A 2020 Vision of Civil Society

A 2020 Vision of Civil Society

To coincide with London Funders’ publication of our Review of Reviews, Rocket Science’s London Director, John Griffiths, reflects on what Brexit really means for UK civil society and some implications for its funders . . .

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

These words of the metaphysical poet and one-time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, have never had more portent as we prepare to leave the European Union. What on the morning of 24th June 2016 might have seemed a knee-jerk act of political protest, has exposed deep-seated socio-economic divisions throughout the land, as well as between the capital city and the rest of the country. Recent analyses of the implications for the UK of the Brexit vote show that this is not a time for London’s “splendid isolation.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU proved to be the cue for a lengthy bout of self-analysis and enquiry. The last two years have seen an outpouring of reports looking at different aspects of the condition and future of Britain. They explore the changes required to our democracy, education and economy in order to confront the biggest challenges facing the country today of which inequality, the focus of a new 5-year inquiry by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, is consistently identified as the greatest.

What is absent from these assessments is any significant contradiction to the narrative of an irrevocably shrunken state unable to cope with rising demographic pressures and social demand. The contract which underpinned the welfare state for over 70 years – ie that in exchange for taxation and personal responsibility government will provide for its citizens “from cradle to grave” – appears broken. In their search for an alternative system, the reviews do share a certain optimism that a far more inclusive civil society, one no longer synonymous with a “third sector” but also embracing business, is key to our achieving a new form of lasting social settlement.   

Another recurring theme of these analyses is the growing significance of place as the focus for policy making and social innovation in communities. Following more than two decades of devolution and localism, the government’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) gives substance to the belief that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”

This is a policy trend which is likely to strengthen following our eventual exit from the EU, once government defines its idea of “double devolution” and certain powers and funds are repatriated. Several high-profile foundations, as well as the tellingly re-named National Lottery Community Fund, are already taking a more place-based approach to their funding in order to stimulate social action, coordinate investment and unlock local assets. They seem to be tapping into the  popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly atomised society, one in which people look to place as a way of reaffirming their identity and a sense of belonging.

Understanding the current zeitgeist, of which the process of Brexit is more a symptom than a cause, offers some pointers to funders’ future priorities. In what is an increasingly fractured country, there are two fissures which stand out.  


One is the growth in both income and wealth inequality between the richest and the poorest in our society, indicators which are particularly pronounced within London. The other is the increasing divide between capital and country.

Debates about the future sustainability and fairness of London have tended to focus on the striking narrative of “a tale of two cities.” This can hide the degree to which there is also a widening schism between London and the rest of the country. Analysis of the geographical differences in the result of the 2016 EU referendum, for example, has identified the mounting resentment about the capital’s preferential policy treatment, the disproportionate levels of public spending and its growing levels of individual and corporate wealth. Differences in personal wealth, and hence individuals’ life chances, between the capital and the rest of the UK are the biggest of any country in Europe.  As the Social Mobility Commission has pointed out, children going to school in Westminster and receiving free school meals are five times more likely to go to university and then on to good jobs in London, than children elsewhere in the country.

In the so-called “post-truth era,” a time of increasingly shrill political discourse and “fake news,” local and regional funder forums – neutral space where funders share ideas and forge collaborations, supported by increasingly available data on sources of place-based giving – are increasingly essential. Funder collaborations are an opportunity to project the more inclusive image of a modern civil society.  The reviews’ largely optimistic outlook, that civil society has a vital role to play in finding solutions to the challenges ahead, does not gloss over the more hard-hitting assertion that “civil society will not be able to do this without changing itself.” This is meant to be a joint, inclusive effort; civil society’s creativity and synergy come from the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors working together with a shared interest in a common purpose and common wealth.  However, when it is convenient to do so, it is all too easy to revert to traditional thinking, equating the term “civil society” with the “third sector,” a discreet area outside the state and the commercial market, which can reinforce a sense of competition, difference and otherness. 

An important corollary of forums like London Funders’ providing a safe space for collaboration, is that their members appreciate the opportunity and value of being challenged. These reviews’ widening of the parameters of a modern civil society, to include business when it acts for a social purpose, means that a forum’s membership needs to reflect the cross-sectoral nature, the range of place-based and community interests, and the sheer diversity of civil society.

The risk is that narrow or unrepresentative membership creates an echo chamber, with insufficient capacity or courage to address fully the challenges set out, for example, by Julia Unwin’s Inquiry, which envisions civil society thriving only as result of our collective willingness to redefine difficult concepts of Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust. 

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.

No one is hard to reach if we are doing it right – effective community engagement

No one is hard to reach if we are doing it right – effective community engagement

Clare Hammond explores the lessons we have learned at Rocket Science about what works when it comes to community engagement.

Government strategies, funders’ focus, and community need is all going in one direction – a growing emphasis on helping those who most need it. These groups come with a myriad of ‘titles’ such as multiple and complex needs, furthest from the labour market, and the hard to reach.

The typical service model goes – people turn up, you support them, they are better off for it. Sounds simple right? Perhaps not. As any staff involved in frontline delivery will tell you, engaging the right groups in the right numbers and in the right ways is extremely difficult. There are a wide range of complex and nuanced drivers for a lack of engagement that services need to navigate.

We recently completed a review of a Scottish Government fund that supported community-based programmes to take a new and more dignified approach to food poverty. We went in looking for evidence about whether the support provided by these projects was helping alleviate hunger, increase nutrition and reduce the stigma and indignity associated with food banks.

What we didn’t expect to find was how much these projects could teach all sectors about engaging people in services and support. The firm community development underpinning to these organisations created a wave of engagement and interest that projects were often struggling to keep up with. Many had even taken the next step and turned this engagement into extra capacity through volunteering and in-kind support, further building their services.

So, what were these projects doing so well? Based on this research and other projects we have worked on recently, we boiled it down to the following.

Their approach to targeting was not to target

Seems counterintuitive right? But projects that didn’t explicitly target the group they were seeking to reach often ended up doing a better job at reaching exactly that group.

Explicit targeting tends to single out and label individuals, usually negatively. Such labels are understandably unappealing and off-putting; driving away a lot of people in most need of support.

I can already hear commissioners and funders screaming – but what about additionally – won’t we end up helping those who didn’t really need it in the first place as well? Broadly, yes. Careful planning for how to do this is important here for this to be remotely sustainable. We suggest considering the following:

  • Will diversity help achieve better outcomes? Providing a space where people meet, who would otherwise not, can have positive repercussions on local community cohesion, and can create mutually beneficial relationships between people from different walks of life.
  • Can a non-targeted service or support act as a gateway into other more targeted support by building trusted relationships increasing the likelihood that those who need it go on to access other services?


    Blur the line between the helping and the helped

    This is based on the assets-based approach where everyone has something to offer. In addition, individuals usually want to offer something. No one wants to feel like a ‘charity case’. Too often well-intentioned programmes can alienate those they are trying to help, making them feel indebted to the service, and stripping away any dignity in being given support.

    It is easy for people to feel that there is a clear hierarchy of power within a project, where their role is firmly cemented as the ‘helped’, creating a feeling that they are different than the ‘helpers’. This tends to prevent people from feeling empowered and can entrench issues of negative self-image. Ultimately this makes the likelihood of sustained, long-term change slim.

    Creating more equitable power dynamics and opportunities for participants to help one another, particularly through informal volunteering opportunities, can reduce this feeling, and can even free up the capacity of busy staff. It can also combat mistrust issues that participants may have had previously with figures of authority.

    Enable disengagement and reengagement without fear of consequences

    Life can be unpredictable and chaotic, particularly for people dealing with complex, interconnected issues, such as mental ill-health, homelessness, unemployment and alcohol and drug use. This means that participants may fluctuate in their ability to engage with a service, or how useful that service can be to them. However, disengagement with a service does not mean that engagement up until that point has not been useful, or that they won’t be ready to benefit from it again in the future. The option of reengaging can give people a safety net, and help them to feel that, following a setback, all is not lost. It also enables participants to only be part of a project when they are able to really get something out of it, which may actually produce savings to a project in the long run.

    Provide meaningful activities with skills learning

    A key to effective community engagement is for people to see the value in it. No one wants to be a part of something that they feel is a waste of their time. Any community project needs to think very carefully about the activities and approaches used, and how to label them in a way that makes them appealing to be a part of. Understanding the local context, including the local service landscape and where there are gaps, as well as specific local issues, is an essential part of this. It is important not to make assumptions about what it is people want or need, but to instead ask them what they would like.

    Understand that establishing reputation takes time and investment

    Community engagement does not happen overnight. It is likely to take time and sustained effort to establish trust within a community and is an ongoing process. Even well-established projects are at constant risk of becoming out of touch with communities or suffering from a lack of promotion.

    Clare is an Associate Director in our Edinburgh Office. For more information on our community engagement and evaluation work get in touch on 0131 226 4949 or

    What makes a good outcomes framework?

    What makes a good outcomes framework?

    Cristiana Orlando and Clare Hammond reflect on what makes an outcomes framework work

    A fundamental must do across public and third sector organisations is to be able to understand and evidence the change you are creating. Measuring outcomes is the bread and butter of organisations, and certainly the area of focus of a large portion of our work here at Rocket Science.

    There is a huge range of complexities to bear in mind when measuring your outcomes for example:

    • Making sure you are measuring the right things – as you tend to do what you measure
    • Trying to articulate impact on soft and often intangible changes you are seeing in those you work with
    • Tracking long term impact so that you can report on impacts achieved after your work with an individual or community finishes.

    However, the complexity we want to focus on in today’s blog is around how to coordinate impact measurement. For example, where Scotland-wide reporting is required, but activity and impact is occurring across 32 local organisations or partnerships. Scotland’s (and many other jurisdictions’) answer to this is to have a national outcomes’ framework. There are frameworks for community justice, mental health, alcohol and drug, social care etc – all seeking to build a comprehensive picture of impact at a national scale.

    A framework has to let partners do their own thing but measure impact with consistency

    The purpose of these frameworks is to enable a range of partners to do their own thing, but track progress, change and impact in a way that enables success to be aggregated, and in some situations compared.

    An unused framework is a pointless framework

    For a framework to be useful it has to be consistently applied and applicable for the vast majority of partners. More importantly a framework has to be used to be helpful.

    We are all very good at creating amazing and theoretically perfect frameworks that are:

    • Impossible to lower onto delivery on the ground – if it doesn’t enable local partners to tell a story that makes sense to them it is difficult to use the framework in practice.
    • Not useful to those completing the data – if it isn’t useful to them then why divert already stretched staff time using it?


      In our experience of reviewing and developing outcomes framework across the social care, health, employability, community justice, and housing and homelessness we have learned that there are several good practice elements that make a framework work:

      • A good outcomes framework is concise, clear, and consistent in structure and content. Keep outcome titles short but with clear instructions on how to interpret and measure them. Keep the number of outcomes to the minimum needed. Be clear about the aim of the framework, how outcomes link together and be open about the strengths and challenges of the framework
      • Avoid obsolescence through being too vague. There is a tendency to keep outcomes very high level to ensure it is flexible and applicable for partners doing very different things. Being too vague runs the risk that the information becomes meaningless as it tries to be all things to all people
      • Create a framework that is easy to collect data Conducting feasibility testing beforehand, ensuring the framework is co-produced involving all partners, and providing guidance on the use of proxy data are three ways to mitigate the risk of including unfeasible outcomes or indicators.
      • When an outcomes framework is used across localities, it is important to balance national and local priorities. Create a clear link between national objectives and local needs by providing a breakdown of the framework’s aims at both levels. This helps partners have clarity around how they fit into the bigger picture and facilitates the collection of meaningful data locally.
      • Lastly, good frameworks are closely aligned to the way business is done already. The closer the alignment the easier it is to integrate into day to day activities and greater chance of staff buying into its value

      Outcomes frameworks are a powerful tool, but striking the balance between comprehensiveness, consistency and simplicity can be a tricky process.


      Clare Hammond is an Associate Director and Cristiana is a consultant in our Edinburgh Office. For more information on our outcomes frameworks and evaluation work please get in touch with the Edinburgh Office on 0131 226 4949 or

      When is a distance travelled tool a bad idea?

      When is a distance travelled tool a bad idea?

      When is a distance travelled tool a bad idea? Clare Hammond explores when and how to use distance travelled tools

      Distance travelled tools are a popular way of understanding the progression someone has made through a service. They are almost a standard part of any funder or commissioner’s monitoring ask and certainly feature heavily in evaluations and impact measurement.

      But when is using a distance travelled tool a really bad idea?

      The issue is that needs assessment and distance travelled tools can be seen as the same thing by funders, commissioners, service managers and others.

      So, what is the difference?

      • Distance travelled tools are ways of understanding the progress an individual has made. They are particularly useful when assessing the growth in an individual’s knowledge or tracking a single outcome
      • Needs assessment tools are used by practitioners to identify needs and target interventions as part of their case management role.

      Needs assessment tools are a vital part of providing holistic and person-centred support as they allow the practitioner to work through with the participant the various elements of their lives and identify the participant’s worries and needs. They tend to consider a wide variety of aspects of an individual’s life such as health, housing, relationships, employment and addiction.

      It is common for practitioners to use these tools regularly throughout their engagement with a participant in order to understand the changing priorities for support.

      For this reason, it can be easy to see how they could also be used to track an individual’s progression. If housing was scoring as a high area of concern and then after six weeks the concern level is significantly lower, then it could be reasonable to expect that this could be an impact of the programme.

      However, needs assessment tools make terrible measures of distance travelled. They can provide a distorted and confused picture of progression for two main reasons:

      1. Progression is not a linear pathway – particularly for participants with chaotic lives – and can be distorted by how individual’s feel on a particular day. Recovery or improvement is never linear and variations in scores can be misleading when considering overall progress


      2. Needs assessment tools can ask individuals how they feel (on a scale) on a wide range of broad issues such as employability, housing, and relationships. Practitioners quite rightly expect to see the figures on the scale to increase and decrease for reasons other than progress or regression. For example:

      • An individual may be focused on managing their addiction, so housing and relationship issues are likely to score low. Once the addiction is better managed, the focus of the individual may turn to their relationships and housing.
      • Initial scores may appear ok when individuals do not yet trust the practitioner they are working with. As the trust and relationship builds between the practitioner and participant, the individual may feel more comfortable expressing unhappiness with parts of their lives.
      • Not knowing what you don’t know can distort initial results. A participant may be happy with their housing situation initially, but as they build their self-esteem they can start to feel they deserve better. Or they can gain a better insight into  their rights when it comes to housing and they can recognise that their housing situation is unhealthy and not good enough.

      In all these situations, it would be reasonable to expect to see scores worsen over time as the individual has the space to think about these areas, the trust in the practitioner to open up about what is concerning them, and the knowledge and self-esteem to know they deserve better.

      There are two key differences between distance travelled tools and needs assessments to consider when working out how to measure impact:

      • Distance travelled tools should be used to test knowledge, understanding and confidence rather than feelings to avoid being distorted by a client’s feelings on a particular day
      • Distance travelled tools need to be focused and specific in what they are asking – broad questions like, ‘How are you feeling about your housing situation?’ should be reserved for needs assessment tools as they are useful questions to open up conversations about need.

      So, when working out how to measure progress – beware!  What can appear to be a distance travelled tool may not provide you want you are looking for.


      Until next time, Clare 

      Clare is an Associate Director at Rocket Science who specialises in health and social care with expertise in understanding impact and conducting evaluations. To discuss anything further please get in touch at of 0131 226 4949