Emergent strategies recognize that trying to do things like improve people’s education touches on a number of other issues, including health, poverty and social mobility. The effects of these can be impossible to predict in advance; emergent strategies change tack to deal with new issues and problems as they arise. Which means, of course, that you need information about what the new issues and problems are as soon as possible.
But where do funders get their information from? For most funders the information about whether or not their programmes are succeeding will come from their grantees, so this information needs to be good enough to help funders decide if they should review their course of action. But it isn’t.
NPC’s survey of how funders use impact measurement found that while most of the funders surveyed considered impact measurement to be really important, less than 60 per cent are using the impact measurement of their grantees to inform or review their strategy. Only around a third of funders are using the information to inform other funders. And this is because, in large part, the impact information they receive simply isn’t good enough to base decisions on.
If funders are not basing their strategies on information from grantees, what are they basing them on? The answer should include information from the people they are trying to help – but this is unlikely. Asking people what they think is likely to help them, or how different issues touch upon their lives, is a valuable source of information that is far too seldom exploited. But it can be incredibly valuable. A survey of funders by the Centre for Effective Philanthropy found that those that were making efforts to listen to the views of beneficiaries had a better idea of the progress they were making on their goals and the impact the foundation was having.
In a complex world results may not always be replicable. But that doesn’t mean that we can neglect finding out what works and what doesn’t. Funders will want to replicate or adapt programmes if they are successful. They should be talking to other funders and charities about what they have found to be successful and what has been a failure, so that we can collectively come up with emergent strategies, and are not doomed to repeat our failures. For this to happen, we need to be gathering evidence from as many sources as we can, evidence which can tell us whether we are going off track or not.