How to be more effective in reducing disadvantage?
After 10 years in the sector supporting clients working with people living in disadvantage, SVA Consulting reflects on the strategies and interventions that it has seen deliver the greatest impact.
As SVA Consulting reaches its 10th anniversary there is much to celebrate. From small beginnings with a team of two consultants, SVA Consulting has now completed 650 projects for over 300 organisations. We have 40 staff, are financially sound and enjoy strong relationships with a range of clients across the social purpose sector: service providers, government, philanthropy and corporates.
In line with our mission to “… work with partners to improve the lives of people in need in Australia” we support clients to improve their services and funding strategies. This includes working with organisations as diverse as Anglicare WA, House With No Steps, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, STREAT, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and AMP Foundation. We have also established the SVA Quarterly to share our learnings with the sector.
So surely we should be pleased with our achievements?
Yes, we are pleased and we look forward to working with more clients to help them increase their impact. However, when we examine persistent disadvantage across the last 10 years, it paints a different picture that highlights an ever-present need.
Improving the lives of people in need
From our work and experience over the last decade, we’ve observed the need for more effective allocation and use of resources; with a clear focus on those strategies and interventions that deliver the greatest impact.
We believe this requires government, funders and social purpose organisations to be client centred, effectively run, and engaged in the ecosystem within which they operate. We also believe there is opportunity for wide-scale improvements across each of these areas.
1. Client centred
Client centred organisations put the lives of beneficiaries at the heart of what they do. They understand the needs, views and experiences of their clients, as well as opportunities to support improved outcomes. An impactful organisation will understand and work to address a social problem that is specific to the local context, recognising the unique role it can play in supporting improved outcomes.
… important to go beyond the rhetoric and look for evidence of how the client perspective is incorporated into the decision-making process.
Many organisations will claim to be client centred, and many are just that. However, it is important to go beyond the rhetoric and look for evidence of how the client perspective is incorporated into the decision-making process.
One trend is the increasing focus on engaging clients in program design and delivery. This is often referred to as human centred design. Emerging evidence suggests that involving the client early and iterating often can drive a significant improvement in outcomes.
As a process it helps to ensure that the product or service responds to real needs, early ideas are tested in the real world, and trust and credibility is built with clients. It can also lead to more creative and innovative solutions compared to traditional top-down approaches.
This resonates with our own work and perspectives. In one recent case, we worked alongside Lifeline Australia to design a crisis support service using text messaging. Lifeline wanted to ensure that the client voice was heard and incorporated into the design of this new service. In partnership with Thick, a human centred design agency, we developed and delivered a series of testing sessions with Lifeline’s crisis support workers and people with lived experience of crisis or mental illness.
The research provided Lifeline Australia with a rich set of 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. The process has also encouraged Lifeline to develop ongoing methods and forums to learn directly from stakeholders.
Despite the best of intentions and a dedicated staff, it has been difficult to see evidence of the client voice when major decisions were being made.
While this type of approach may seem like common sense, it is by no means common place. In the disability sector for example, several organisations we have worked with claiming to value the client voice have had no-one with lived experience of disability on their board; nor as a voting member of the organisation; nor providing input through a client advisory group. In fact, even client surveys have been completed only every two to three years. Despite the best of intentions and a dedicated staff, it has been difficult to see evidence of the client voice when major decisions were being made.
2. Effectively run
While an impactful organisation needs to be client centred, it also needs to be effectively run. From our perspective, this encompasses being effective in how it plans, delivers and learns. To this end, we think there are three questions all organisations should strive to answer:
- Can you define your purpose and how you will achieve the desired change?
- Can you demonstrate that you are achieving improved outcomes for your target clients?
- Are you achieving those outcomes at least as efficiently as others addressing the same issue for the same population?
These are hard questions to answer, but we think every organisation should have clear view of their position against each topic.
1. Planning for change
Answering the first question requires having an organisation plan or strategy with clearly defined goals, activities and measurable outcomes. Many of our clients need help in defining and agreeing on these initial elements, with broad perspectives on the social problem and opportunity often derailing good intentions. As one client noted, “without a clear plan and focus, we are constantly at risk of being lured in by the funding opportunity rather than where we could have the most impact”.
… we often diagnose… ‘infinite need paralysis’, where organisations find it difficult to decide who to support…
One issue we often diagnose is ‘infinite need paralysis’, where organisations find it difficult to decide who to support given the increasing needs and issues in the community. Our observation is that without a deliberate choice, many organisations are forever debating the point, expanding haphazardly, confusing the team and missing the opportunity to build specialised skills and capabilities.
2. Measuring outcomes
To answer the second question, there is a need for organisations to intentionally and thoughtfully track performance (an activity we define as outcomes management). Adopting a focus on tracking outcomes and using outcomes information to inform decision-making is recognised as an important discipline for organisations to deliver improved services. It is also a response to heightened community expectations that services measure and demonstrate their performance in terms of effectiveness.
Over a number of years, SVA Consulting has worked with Te Whānau O Waipareira to support the organisation in building an outcomes management strategy that measures what really matters for Māori families in West Auckland. This has involved working with key personnel across the organisation to develop the theory of change (defining outcomes and links with activities), as well as to define the measures and data to be collected to track performance over time. Such focussed effort has enabled the organisation to understand the change supported through its activities, and direct resources and investments to those areas making the most impact.
Ideally, outcomes management should include a focus on defining the effect created through a program or intervention. While we recognise this can often be a difficult and costly task with limited data available, failing to understand whether the program or intervention is having any real and lasting impact can mean scarce resources are misallocated.
This should not be seen as discretionary; what can be more important than measuring impact for beneficiaries?
Through our work supporting organisations in the area of outcomes management, we often see executional gaps that mean aspirations to manage to outcomes are not being realised. Key gaps include:
- Commitment to change – in complex, multi-program organisations successful implementation can take years. Organisation leadership need to ‘stay the course’ while they learn about what works best for their context. Not surprisingly, implementing outcomes management also requires changes across an organisation. Clients and staff need to see the collection of data as important and the organisation needs to develop reflective practices to interpret and learn from the data. Often the adoption of these practices requires a change in organisational culture and processes.
- Resource allocation – implementing and then maintaining an outcomes management system requires both human and financial investment. This should not be seen as discretionary; what can be more important than measuring impact for beneficiaries? Social purpose organisation boards and management should see it as important as non-discretionary fiduciary duties such as managing and tracking financial data.
- Performance management – appropriately skilled staff are required to extract and analyse data to understand what outcomes are being achieved and how these compare to expectations. This needs to be complemented by a process for decision makers to act upon the data and adopt corrective actions required to drive continuous improvement.
3. Comparing outcomes
The third question, Are you achieving those outcomes at least as efficiently as others addressing the same issue for the same population, is harder. Once organisations measure outcomes, they should seek to compare performance to learn and improve. This should include comparison of outcomes and costs to build understandings about effectiveness and efficiency. Importantly, while comparison data may be limited, we believe there is a need and opportunity for organisations to share more information about performance and costs to build the collective knowledge about what works.
… it is incumbent on boards to assume a ‘disruptive’ posture and challenge management (and themselves)…
Social purpose boards should play a role in this process – but unfortunately most don’t appreciate it. In the for-profit sector, beyond company boards there are multiple actors in the ecosystem that drive the improvement of organisations that are not maximising shareholder returns. This includes activist shareholders, acquisitive competitors, industry analysts and private equity funds. In the ‘social purpose’ sector, the actors driving improvement include government and philanthropic funders, and beneficiary and industry advocacy organisations. However, in general they do not operate with the level of resources, information, or focus on low performing organisations that their ‘for-profit’ equivalents enjoy.
Consequently, it is incumbent on boards to assume a ‘disruptive’ posture and challenge management (and themselves) to answer the question: ‘Are we achieving our outcomes at least as efficiently as others addressing the same issue?’ And, if an organisation cannot ‘close’ the performance gap to others addressing the same issue, the board may need to be willing to transfer assets/resources to those who are doing a better job.
Finally, funders, both government and philanthropic, have a critical role to play in influencing and incentivising optimal behaviours. Funders are already helping to drive this change by funding organisations based on the outcomes they achieve. This has started but has a long way to go. As important, funders can also help accelerate this process by influencing organisations to develop plans that have clarity of purpose and include the outcomes they hope to achieve; articulating how they will achieve that purpose and a framework and processes for measuring progress against outcomes.
3. Understand and engage with the ecosystem to influence systems change
Alongside being client centred and effectively run, an impactful organisation will have a deep understanding of the ecosystem within which it operates and have a view on whether it is working effectively to support improved outcomes for people living in disadvantage.
From our work and experience, we believe all organisations should be aware of the other actors in the ecosystem and their respective roles and responsibilities. In so doing, organisations will be able to understand their unique contribution and identify what, if any, opportunity there may be for collaboration.
… it needed to address the whole system and that meant bringing all parties along on the journey.
In 2012 Movember engaged SVA Consulting to contribute to the development of a strategic plan to improve health outcomes for men with prostate cancer. Movember knew that to have more impact, it needed to address the whole system and that meant bringing all parties along on the journey. Everyone needed to share the same perspective on what needed to be achieved and, some at least, had to be galvanised to change the system.
Supporting Movember, we mapped the ecosystem of players and engaged with representatives of every group and profession in the field to start to define the health outcomes that matter for people with personal experience of prostate cancer – to come to a shared vision and understanding of what everyone wanted to achieve. The team also worked with the players to identify the initiatives that would have the greatest impact on these outcomes and, based on individual organisation’s resources and capabilities, who was best to deliver on them. A few years on, as a result of skillful planning, engagement and facilitation, these groups are working together to deliver the results that they all want to see.
In parallel, organisations should also consider whether the ecosystem within which they operate needs incremental change to improve client outcomes, or something more transformational. Driving such change is hard. It requires planning, collaboration and compromise to move forward. But the good news is that even transformative change is possible.
The agreement to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provides a recent example of a social reform that is expected to transform the way in which disability services are delivered and accessed. Importantly, it is also expected to deliver improved outcomes for people with disability. As is well documented, the scheme was developed via years of hard work and action by many across the sector. It is this context and process that should be considered as others look to potential transformation within their own ecosystem.
As we look to the future, we want to be bold and push for improvements for those most disadvantaged in Australia. To support this ambition, we have recently documented our learnings into an evidence-based framework we call the ‘SVA Fundamentals for Impact’ which will guide us and other organisations. In the coming months we look forward to sharing this work with the sector.
… leaders who are not afraid to track and publish their outcomes, and to share what they’ve learnt from their failures to help the entire sector improve.
Notably, real change will require strong leaders. Leaders who understand their clients’ needs and the ecosystem in which they operate. Leaders who are prepared to develop plans with ambitious goals. And leaders who are not afraid to track and publish their outcomes, and to share what they’ve learnt from their failures to help the entire sector improve.
In Australia we have the economic resources, the societal goodwill and the talent, to dare to dream that we can make a step change reduction in disadvantage. People in need deserve nothing less.
 Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Addressing entrenched disadvantage, Media Release, April 2015
 Brotherhood of St Laurence and Melbourne Institute, Social Exclusion Monitor, 2016
 Dropping Off the Edge 2015, Overview
 See for example Cea & Rimington, ‘Creating Breakout Innovation‘, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2017.