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June 27, 2018

Are you really focused on your clients?

Prompts to help you reflect on how well you know your clients and what they need, drawing upon the SVA Fundamentals for Impact.

Social-purpose organisations exist for those who benefit from their actions – in most cases people with some form of need. Therefore, these beneficiaries’ needs and interests should be at the centre of every decision that the organisation makes. This is a simple concept, yet a very challenging undertaking in practice; organisations often balance a complex set of stakeholders, including funders, whose interests at times may be different to those of the end beneficiaries.

This can lead the organisation to lose sight of its purpose and so reduce the impact that it could achieve. This ultimately will diminish the trust of those that it exists to support, leading clients to abandon the organisation and seek support elsewhere, or worse, to disengage from the system altogether and risk becoming more entrenched in disadvantage.

How can an organisation make sure that it stays focused on what is most important to its end beneficiaries or clients? What are the warning signs that it’s not achieving this? How can an organisation become more client-centred?

Having worked in the social sector since 2002, SVA recognised the need for a robust, evidence-informed approach to help organisations diagnose its performance beyond a focus on their internal workings. We developed the SVA Fundamentals for Impact to do just that – enable organisations to assess whether they are being effective and how they can do better. Being client-centred is one of the three pillars of the framework.

This article describes what we mean by focusing on clients, and what better practice looks like and will help organisations to reflect on how their organisation is doing in this area.

Figure 1. The two key characteristics of client-centred organisations
Figure 1. The two key characteristics of client-centred organisations

 

There are two key characteristics to being client-centred:

  • The organisation is focused on end beneficiaries, and
  • The organisation provides evidence informed and appropriate services.

Each of these will now be examined in more detail.

Focus on end beneficiaries

This characteristic goes to the heart of why an organisation exists – its purpose, and cuts across all its functions and management practices. It highlights that for-purpose organisations should exist to create social good, not just survive.

High performing organisations have a deep understanding of the needs and views of the people they work with, and make significant effort to build authentic engagement with communities in which they operate. This could manifest in different ways depending on the nature of service or the types of clients they work with. Examples include: having board members who represent the client groups, or having a robust and transparent process for collecting real time feedback from the clients, or engaging target clients when designing the service through the human-centred design process.

There are three elements that need to be considered when reflecting on the extent to which your organisation is focused on the end beneficiaries.

Figure 2: The three elements of focus on end beneficiaries
Figure 2. The three elements of focus on end beneficiaries.

 

These are:

  1. Knowledge, understanding and experience with target beneficiaries: Understand exactly what the target clients’ needs are, what they want to see change in their lives, and ensure your organisation has the necessary skills and experience to meet those needs
  2. Accounting for local context:Ensure that services / programs delivered take into account the unique nature of the local context in which they are delivered
  3. Engagement of beneficiaries in program design / delivery: Engage clients in program design and delivery, and provide opportunities for them to share feedback on their experience of the services to the organisation.

For each element, there are some questions that leadership should consider to understand the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses in this area.

ElementsGuiding questions
Knowledge, understanding and experience
  • To what extent does the organisation understand what the targeted beneficiaries really need?
  • To what extent is the organisation genuinely connected to the community to hear authentic opinions and perspectives?
  • Does the organisation have a (positive) track record with the target beneficiaries or the issue being addressed?
Accounting for local context
  • To what extent do the services offered account for the local context and respond to the unique client needs in the area?
  • How strong is the demand for the specific service the organisation offers and how many others offer the same or similar services in the same area or target the same clients?
Engagement of beneficiaries in program design or delivery
  • What influence do clients have over the design and delivery of the service/s?
  • How much effort does the organisation put in to engage with the clients beyond their role as service recipients?
  • How frequently does the organisation seek input or feedback from the clients?
  • Does the organisation understand why clients access the service and what prevents potential clients from accessing it?

The Humour Foundation runs the Clown Doctors program at all major children’s hospitals across Australia, as well as in some aged care facilities. It is an example of an organisation that puts the lives of the end beneficiaries firmly at the centre of what they do. For example, in their work with children, their program is driven by the ethos that the ‘child is the boss’ which means that at every interaction the performers take the lead from the child as to what they do. This means adjusting to the child’s interests, requests and energy which results in every interaction being unique and just for that child and their family at that moment. This is supplemented with feedback from the families and hospital staff, plus regular sessions with the staff from each hospital ward reflecting on how clown doctors work, when they visit patients and what they do.

Evidence informed and appropriate services

Organisations will be more effective to the extent they draw on evidence to provide high quality and impactful services. High performing organisations ensure that their programs and services are grounded in a deep understanding of the evidence around what works and regularly reflect on new evidence from their own services and external sources to ensure continuous improvement. The ultimate aim here is to deliver consistently high performance and quality across all services.

Four elements need to be considered when reflecting on the extent to which an organisation provides evidence informed and appropriate services.

Figure 3. The four elements of evidence informed and appropriate services.
Figure 3. The four elements of evidence informed and appropriate services.

 

These are:

  1. Relevance of programs and services: Provide services that are appropriate and relevant for, and are accessed by, the target clients
  2. Role of evidence in program design or delivery: Ensure that the program design and delivery are grounded in a strong understanding of what works for the specific client group
  3. Role of evidence in program development or growth: The plans to scale or grow the program are based on a rigorous evaluation of the program’s results
  4. Quality and results of programs or services: The organisation has a deep understanding of the outcomes of its services, and actively manages performance using outcomes data to ensure results meet expectations and services delivered are of high quality.

For each element, here are some questions that leadership can consider to understand the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses in this area.

ElementsGuiding questions
Relevance of programs and services
  • What do we know about who is accessing our services and are these the same groups as our target beneficiaries?
  • To what extent does the program or service meet the needs of those who access them?
Role of evidence in program design or delivery
  • To what extent is the program or service design based on the evidence of what works for the target beneficiary group?
  • How frequently does the program or service draw on what has been learned from similar programs?
Role of evidence in program development or growth
  • To what extent are the plans to scale or grow the program based on a rigorous evaluation of the program’s design and results?
Quality and results of programs or services
  • How robust is the evidence which shows whether the program is having positive (or negative) results?
  • Do the results match expectations?
  • Does the organisation focus on improvement or discontinues underperforming programs or services?
  • To what extent are services considered to be of high quality (i.e. reliable, properly resourced, responsive)?

An example of an organisation engaging with its clients and broader evidence when developing a new service is Lifeline Australia.

In developing Australia’s first SMS-based crisis support service, the project team initially delivered a series of test sessions with Lifeline’s crisis support workers and people with lived experience of crisis or mental illness. Lifeline also looked at international examples in the US and UK, and examined best practice literature. The combined research provided Lifeline Australia with insights into the challenges of their current service offerings, the practicalities of training and supervising their workforce and the opportunities for future text-based services.

How to use these questions

As you start reflecting on these questions for each characteristic, you will start to see where the gaps are in your understanding of your clients and their needs, and how well your services meet those needs.

If you want to take this process further, you can use the SVA Fundamentals for Impact diagnostic tool to complete an assessment of your organisation or program. Our experience suggests that this diagnostic is most effective when conducted by an organisation’s leadership group – the board and executive team – ideally, together.

These conversations about an organisation’s focus on clients and evidence are most useful when done in the context of understanding the organisation’s performance as a whole.

Figure 4. The other pillars in the SVA Fundamentals for Impact framework
Figure 4. The other pillars in the SVA Fundamentals for Impact framework

 

This is captured in the other pillars and characteristics described in the SVA Fundamentals for Impact – relating to how effectively the organisation is run and its engagement with the broader ecosystem in which it operates. These characteristics will be explored in future articles.

Using the SVA Fundamentals for Impact diagnostic tool

Rating how your organisation is doing for these and other questions for each of the seven elements, and vigourously debating them, will enable your team to become aligned on where the organisation is at and what to focus on. Using a rating of 1 (less developed) to 4 (high performing) helps to identify areas of strength and weakness across all pillars of the framework.

Then you can decide on the future aspirations of the organisation and identify priority areas for improvement. Depending on the nature of the services provided by the organisation or program, its maturity and strategic objectives, some of the areas may be more or less important at any given time. This is a judgement call for the leadership team that will take into account future goals, available resources and the external environment.

It is also important to highlight that not every organisation need aim for a ‘high performing’ rating for each element. However, it is important to understand why this is not feasible or desirable. This ensures those areas do not hinder an organisation’s ability to have impact.

For example, organisations operating in a sector such as disability where clients have more control and choice over their service providers will have a higher need to be client-centred to compete in this environment.

In such environments, organisations will need to consider all of the organisation’s operations in terms of customer-centricity. The article How can disability service providers become more customer-centric outlines a process for how organisations competing for consumer-directed funding, with a special emphasis on the disability sector, can build a more customer-centric operating model.

And obviously the size of the organisation will play a part.

Larger organisations, delivering services in multiple locations to many clients would need a more sophisticated system of gathering consistent client feedback, as well as drawing on academic evidence on what works and doesn’t work, and a process for continually reflecting on it.

Whereas a smaller organisation would not need to go to that extent. Regular engagement with its client group may be enough to keep track of clients’ needs and how well it’s meeting them.

This is in part a simple consideration of the return on investment. Another factor is ensuring the leadership team has the necessary information and evidence to make its decisions.

Conclusion

To have impact in the social sector requires a thorough understanding of the people you provide services to. And for you to understand what needs you are meeting and how well you do this.

Reflecting on these questions for the seven elements described above will take your organisation a long way down this road.


For more information contact Katya Andreyeva on kandreyeva@socialventures.com.au

Explore the SVA Fundamentals for Impact framework

To take your organisation further down the road of becoming customer-centric, see How can disability service providers become more customer-centric

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