Throughout the time I have been involved with the youth sector, it has become increasingly necessary for organisations to attempt to evidence a tangible and defined impact for their beneficiaries in an environment where funding is scarce and demand has only risen. However, what struck me throughout in the series of presentations and conversations among delegates at this third annual gathering for the Centre was an increased willingness to share expertise, as well as resources, where a silo approach is simply not viable in the current landscape.
This message became particularly apparent through Ruth Rickman-Williams’s presentation, which set out Youth Focus West Midlands’ recent challenges, and journey in response to those challenges. As austerity began to bite and resources became ever more limited, a struggle to survive ensued. However, it was clear that Ruth’s approach to restructuring her organisation and network to facilitate a more united agenda across the sector, including commissioners and those delivering services, could lead to a more holistic approach that is more likely to improve outcomes for young people and serve the needs of the wider community.
For local networks that are pooling their resources as part of regional ‘Youth Impact Networks’, there is a detectable sense of just how vital collaboration across the range of organisations in the voluntary sector and public services is. The networks seem to be providing a solid foundation for sharing learning, ideas and resources. From my own recent advisory work in patient participation in the health agenda, I have seen how all areas in England now have a Sustainability and Transformation Plan. These plans go far beyond just how healthcare is provided, but much more about the wider needs of local populations and are showing how voluntary sector organisations working in partnership with one another can improve health and wellbeing outcomes for young people. I am interested to see how more youth sector services might become part of significant pieces of work like this.
I was also struck by Dan Gregory’s emphasis in his keynote that much current impact measurement risks being meaningless to the organisations to whom it relates. I would add that this is a particular risk where young people that are not kept at the core of service design, delivery and evaluation.
Within the breakout workshops, I was drawn to the new initiatives led by the Centre and New Philanthropy Central, on how data can be effectively captured in open access settings and ensuring an individual’s journey can be tracked, specifically in services funded through the Youth Investment Fund (YIF). The YIF will create a new body of evidence about whether and how services are making a difference to the lives of young people.
From my own experience, having attended the same open access settings for various unrelated projects, I know that young people can be transient and the location could be playing a whole host to diverse services from access to housing and welfare to career assistance. While the new ‘Footfall’ resource in gathering data via mobile devices will be an innovative means of building a consistent record, I particularly remember a comment from a delegate in the room that many young people in the most disadvantaged circumstances will not have access to smartphones and in some cases have the signal to even make use of it. A fellow Young Researcher made the point too that without young people seeing how their role in evaluation has influenced the practice later on, their participation in this is more likely to be tokenistic. I believe these should be important considerations as the YIF evaluation plans are developed.
I began as a volunteer with Dorset Youth Association in 2010. Since then, we have seen a profound upheaval within the sector, and many are still learning how to thrive as well as survive in the new circumstances, structures and network. We are still in a time of flux and unpredictability, but it looks to me like we are reaching a point where the sector is becoming more resilient against much of the shock to its financial security post-2010 and more willing to work in more collaboration. With closer partnerships and even mergers changing the structures through which organisations are able to have an impact on young people’s development, I look forward to seeing what comes next for the sector.