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Measuring what matters: Valuing the voluntary sector in East Sussex

How do you want to be judged? By how much you earn? By your kindness and humanity? It’s not an easy question to answer. By the same token, it is difficult to determine the best way to value the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector. Despite the social and environmental contribution of the VCSE sector, there’s an overriding tendency to value it in standard economic terms. In this short blog, we argue that perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we choose to measure.

Valuing the VCSE in East Sussex


Earlier this year, IVAR was commissioned by East Sussex County Council to research the social and economic value of the county’s VCSE sector. The Council wanted to understand the scale, scope, and contribution of the sector. As we discuss below, arriving at reliable economic valuations was far from easy. Nevertheless, we made the following estimates about the VCSE sector in East Sussex:

  • Over 3,500 organisations
  • Generates an economic gross value added of at least £76m
  • Employs at least 6,000 people, roughly equivalent to 3% of the county’s workforce
  • Harnesses £110m from volunteers contributing 9.6m hours per annum, equivalent to a workforce of 6,000 full-time workers

Numbers like these are useful. They give us a feel for the size and significance of the VCSE sector. They remind policy-makers that civil society should be taken seriously. However, they also need to be interpreted with care.




There are significant challenges in estimating the economic value of the VCSE sector. Government data rarely separately identifies VCSE organisations. Furthermore, a large number of small, local voluntary organisations are not registered with their regulators, often because their income falls below registration thresholds. As such, we have to make educated guesses about the size and scale of ‘below the radar’ organisations.

The issue of ‘below the radar’ organisations is especially significant because the vast majority of VCSE organisations are small. We estimate that over half of the VCSE organisations in East Sussex have an income of less than £25,000. Much of the value of volunteering (calculated from survey data) resides in these organisations, yet we cannot readily identify them all.




Valuing small voluntary organisations in economic terms has an air of nonsense about it. When we think about voluntary organisations, is economic productivity really what comes to mind first? Are VCSE organisations best understood by their monetary value? As part of our East Sussex research, we have spoken to various local voluntary organisations. It seems clear to us that, while there is economic value in what these organisations do, there is other more significant value. For example, there is enormous value in the social relationships that form in and around local voluntary organisations. There is value in the trust that forms through participation. There is a value in the way that VCSE organisations help people to feel better.


Reconceptualizing VCSE value


It is important that the VCSE sector can articulate its value in ways other than economic terms. Civil society is distinctive and should be proud of its unique contribution. We need to articulate how VCSE organisations contribute to what is beneficial and important in our lives.

Measures of wellbeing offer one potential alternative to understanding the contribution of voluntary organisations. Measuring wellbeing takes us away from an emphasis on productivity and consumption, towards an understanding of our happiness and life satisfaction. That said, there are challenges in measuring wellbeing and establishing causal relationships between VCSE activity and improved wellbeing. Wellbeing measures may also not suit every situation.

What is important varies with context and perspective. For example, the way an environment group improves our enjoyment of the natural world may differ from the way a youth charity builds the confidence of young people. Thus, the assertion of value becomes a judgment as to what is important and beneficial in our lives.



Measuring the contribution of the VCSE sector is incredibly hard.  We can place economic values on it, but perhaps this does it a disservice. The VCSE sector provides fabric to many people’s lives and surely deserves to valued on its own terms. So, rather than looking at estimates of economic worth, let’s be bolder in asserting the value of VCSE organisations according to what is important and beneficial in our lives.

In the next stage of our work in East Sussex, we will holding a Share & Build Share & Build event on Thursday 17th  December. We will share initial findings from the research and provide  an opportunity for organisations in East Sussex to add further insights and discuss these with colleagues from across the VCSE and public sectors. For more information about this work or to join on the 17th of December, please contact

Spotlight UK’s experience of strategic review

Michaela Riley, Founder, Chairman, CEO of Spotlight UK, shares her experience of bringing in IVAR to lead a ‘strategic review’. 



What does strategy mean to you? 


Taking a step back and looking at where you are really heading, then planning the steps you need to take to get there.

Why did you decide to have a strategic review? 


To ensure we were not just treading water and being reactive. We wanted to take a proper look at the work we wanted to be undertaking to ensure our team was set up correctly and aware of the way we had to go to achieve our goal.



What changed in your organisation as a result?


We restructured the management structure and shared out the workload slightly differently.



What advice would you have for another voluntary sector leader about to embark on a strategic review? 


It is an excellent idea, as it gives you confidence that you are heading in the right direction and set up correctly to achieve your goals.


Will this completely overwhelm my time?

We asked the leaders of three organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 


Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)


‘Making the decision on merger as a sustainable way forwards for our adoption service was very time-consuming.

However, the Board engaged a facilitator to ensure that time would be effectively managed through a staged process, which meant that I, as a relatively inexperienced Chair, would not have an overwhelming time commitment.’





Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK


‘Yes. It will overwhelm you and you will almost certainly underestimate the time and energy required to make it happen.’ 




Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement


‘There is a lot to do but some of it is very administrative, especially the due diligence work, and HR focussed if you are transferring staff.

So it depends if you have someone to delegate the bulk of this work to. It is also important to follow a good process and it’s possible to bring in someone to help manage this as there are experienced consultants who do this. I think as CEO it’s important to keep a clear overview and to be very alive to relevant developments and this is harder if you are also doing the bulk of the detailed work. So the short answer is that it need not be overwhelming but it is an important piece of work and takes months not weeks.’





How will I know if it’s the right thing to do?

We asked the leaders of three voluntary organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 


Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement


‘It depends a little bit on the circumstances. However, you need to trust your instincts. 

Does it make you feel excited and give you a strong feeling that bringing the organisations together creates something more for the people you serve than you can achieve separately? Can you imagine describing the new organisation to different people quite simply so that it feels like a natural fit and a positive move? If you still have doubts I would advise listing them carefully and going through them with senior staff or Board members until you are sure, as it will be hard if you are not completely convinced.’





Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)


‘The organisation was under increasing financial pressure and the Board agreed that merger was the best way forward.

Structured conversations with IVAR assured me that I was making the right decision and that there was a good match between the two charities.’





Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK


‘If you don’t already know if it’s the right thing to do … then it’s probably not!

We had a very simple vision – to create a single service. Had our vision included anything that needed debate, then we would most likely have failed to complete the process. Whatever the challenges and disagreements (and there were plenty), we never doubted that we were striving for the right goal. Four years on, we still question how we should do things and what we should do … but we never question why we did it.’

Forget about the strategy, business plan and theory of change: start with what you want to do and why

This is about the big decisions. The ones that keep you up at night but also get you out of bed each morning. The way these decisions are taken often feels out of control, inexplicable and the consequences frequently attributed to personalities, errors of judgement or lack of proper planning. So what needs to happen to take back control? And in a short, focused time frame?


First, be clear as to what you think these big issues are all about.


It needs a blank sheet approach, trying to sort out the day-to-day concerns from the fundamentals. Write them down. Go back to your organisation’s history and roots: see what the mission statement says or, if it’s unwritten, ask to what extent these are still underpinning everything you do. Equally important, does everyone in the organisation understand these organisational principles and buy into them? Because whatever you decide to do, it will be influenced by these values and assumptions, either explicitly or taken for granted.


Once you’re clear about what you consider the main issues to be and how the organisational principles might interact with them, check with other people as to whether they share your perspective.


The way others perceive problems may surprise you. You need to talk with staff, trustees, volunteers, users and anyone else identified as a key stakeholder. You are trying to elicit the values and goals of the team which are inherent in how they see the issues of concern. Find a system that works for recording all of this: something like ‘cognitive maps’ for each group which can be merged and clustered. Then feed it back and check it out with the participants, either individually or via larger meetings.


Throughout this process, be aware of the different agendas in your organisation.


There may be various interests at stake, challenges to established ways of doing things, hidden resistances. Getting as many of these as possible out into the open might be painful but is usually worth the effort. They are often a means of expressing how much people value and feel passion for the work of the organisation, rather than being about individual gain. Always recognise the strengths of the organisation and build upon these.


Inevitably, by this stage, you will not only have identified two or three major issues but also gathered some first ideas for their resolution.


Now move into this action phase. It should remain highly collaborative, with all the participants involved and engaged. The areas commonly identified for change are set out and tackled. You should invite ideas, suggestions and proposals for action, building up detailed plans and timescales. This might be achieved in small, cross-organisation groups or large half-day workshops.


Finally, you need to ensure that a final report is prepared, drawing together all of the strands that have come to light.


Individuals or a forum are assigned responsibilities for taking the actions forward and monitoring progress. Remain fully focused. Remember that strategy-making, for that’s what this process is all about, is a flexible, responsive process and nothing is set in stone. Keep everything under review, build in new external factors and always try to keep what it is you want to do, those organisational principles, in the foreground.


We think that there is a clear benefit to this process in having an external facilitator involved. Such a person not only takes responsibility for guiding and structuring the process but brings a different way of looking at issues, an ability to draw out strengths and find potential answers and is someone who can support and encourage change.

Strategies for survival

At a recent Roundtable discussion for CEOs of voluntary organisations, Arvinda Gohil, CEO of Community Links, discussed her organisation’s recent partnership with Catch22.



Those present shared the challenges at the forefront of their minds:
  • Pressure/squeeze on time, space for planning and asking big questions about the organisation’s future. For example, when and whether to look at merger; and ‘lack of opportunities to have open discussions about challenges’
  • Lack of long-term funding; constant pressure to diversify/reinvent. Basically ‘having to find different ways of meeting the same objectives’, but paucity of alternative funding sources: ‘a drying up of funds; very difficult to find the equivalent elsewhere’
  • Competitive funding environment makes it difficult to judge what/when to share with others
  • Many organisations have no idea what their true financial situation is’
  • ‘The pace and scale of change makes it so difficult to plan or predict when everything is so uncertain’
Attendees acknowledged that it is difficult to find people who will tell you what to avoid, and very unusual to have ‘this kind of forum’ for discussion. They hoped to have an open conversation about the above challenges.


Key messages for organisations who find themselves in crisis



  • ‘Bumping along from crisis to crisis isn’t sustainable long-term’
  • ‘Comprehensive reviews of your organisation have to start with the finances: is there enough transparency, depth and credibility?’
  • ‘You need cash to downsize and then more cash to re-size’
  • ‘What should matter most is the preservation of the work, not saving the organisation. And if the work is still needed, your job is to find a way of delivering it. But there is no room for sentiment – with the organisation or with people.’
  • ‘In looking for a partner [as a means of keeping the work going], the key question is: what do we each bring and what can we each get out of it?’
  • ‘A crisis can be an opportunity: to focus your mind on what really matters [the work, not the organisation]; and to focus funders’ minds on what their priorities are’
  • ‘Questions about merger or other partnerships should be asked routinely: what is the most appropriate and stable vehicle for delivering our charitable objects and delivering our work – that is what should matter most’
  • ‘If you enter into a formal partnership with another organisation, you need to understand that it’s never going to be the same again. Change is unavoidable.’
  • You can cut things here and there – salami slicing – but at some point, you have to re-structure the organisation that sits at the centre
  • Advice when looking for a partner to work with:
    • Ask for serious technical advice from people who are experienced
    • Get to know the organisation informally – CEO to CEO and Chair to Chair
    • Sit down with the head of the organisation you are looking to work with and consider what the future could look like with that person
    • Carry out due diligence in both directions
    • Shop around


Messages for Funders



  1. Rethink Diversification: routine exhortations to diversify income and be ‘more sustainable’ are at odds with realities of the funding environment: competitive; limited opportunities; tendency towards short-term, non-renewable.
  2. Rethink Continuation: ‘if you still get value from your investment, why end it?’
  3. Invest in New Partnership Models: ‘fund a trial of shared services across a group of organisations in the same field/geography; share and promote the lessons to reassure and inspire others’
  4. Supporting Peer Exchange: create space for leaders to think and reflect together, and look at different options and approaches for keeping their work going; as part of that, being proactive about creating linkages between grantees.

Funders and funded in harmony?

Steven attended an Evaluation Roundtable event in Scotland in early October. Here, he shares his reflections on the relationship between ‘funders’ and ‘funded’. 


Funders never talk to each other. Funders all have totally different requirements. Funders don’t want a relationship with the charities they fund.


These are some myths that circulate in the charity sector. But how true are they?


Evaluation Support Scotland has been working with charities and funders in Scotland to measure and report on their impact for the last 12 years. In that time we’ve seen many changes for the better. To be fair, funders have always wanted to make a difference with their funding. But now they are cannier about joining up to make that difference.

What do I mean by joining up?

Joined up requirements: In 2010, the Scotland Funders’ Forum worked with Evaluation Support Scotland to produce Harmonising Reporting. This is good practice tools and guidance about making charity reporting more useful and less burdensome.


Funders realised that they usually want to know the same things from the charities they fund: What did you do? What difference did you make? What did you learn?


This realisation led to more harmony in funder reporting requirements. Indeed some funders in Scotland are happy to receive a report a charity has written for another co-funder– thus saving time and maximising learning.


Joined up with each other: Funders are more willing to learn from each. For example Walking the Talk is a resource produced by a learning set of seven funders about how they use their evidence to influence policy and practice. Learning set members said the process of learning together was as useful as the product they wrote.


Another example: Getting the Best from External Evaluations came about after funders got together to share their warts and all experiences of commissioning external evaluations. They have created a resource to help their funder peers avoid common pitfalls.


Joined up with funded organisations: Once upon a time, funders spent a great deal more time with charities they didn’t fund (processing applications) then those they did! Now that balance is shifting. Funders want to build relationships with their grantholders to understand impact and to harvest learning about what works – and what doesn’t. They have grantholder sections on their websites and talk to grantholders when they can.


Here are three examples of funders and funded working together:

  1. Breaking the Pattern resources about evaluating prevention work were produced together by the Voluntary Action Fund and funded women’s aid groups.
  2. The Self-Management Fund worked with their grantholders to produce Top tips for funders – simple ideas of how to get the best from the funding relationship.
  3. This recent paper on Reporting on Core Funding was produced by a diverse group of charities and funders. They came together to share challenges and solutions. The paper is the result of their collective wisdom.

The world of funding is not quite perfect yet. There are still some discordant notes amongst funders and funded!


But the funding music is becoming sweeter. And the benefits are clear. By being more joined up funders make better decisions, make more effective grants and make more of a difference for people and communities. And that’s a song worth singing.


Steven Marwick

Director, Evaluation Support Scotland


For more information about Harmonising Reporting see this latest progress update.

The value of small: Evidencing the distinctive contribution of small and medium sized charities

This new study will take an in-depth look at the vital social and economic role of small and medium sized charities operating at a local level in England and Wales. There are 43,000 small and medium-sized charities* in England and Wales. They account for more than a third of all general charities and many provide vital services to people facing multiple and complex disadvantage, including homeless people, victims of domestic abuse and people battling substance misuse.

Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales have chosen to invest in the study at a time when small charities are seeing rising demand for their service, yet are facing unprecedented funding pressures, due to cuts and complex and inappropriate contracting and commissioning processes for public service delivery. 

Research questions
Key questions will include understanding the role small and medium-sized charities play in tackling disadvantage, directly and in partnership with other local service providers, analysing their distinctive features in comparison to large charities, examining their value for money and wider social value, and looking at the most effective ways of funding them.

Research lead
Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research 

Delivery partners
Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership at the Open University Business School
Sheffield Business School

Comment from the team

 “Small local charities play a vital role supporting some of the most disadvantaged people in society and increasingly have to fill large gaps in provision created by the deep and ongoing cuts to public services. But there is concern that their work is under-valued and poorly understood, particularly in relation to larger charities that have been much more successful at winning public service contracts to support key client groups. This research aims to fill a large gap in the evidence base about what it is that makes small local charities distinct and identify the value they create for their clients, communities and public sector bodies.”


Chris Dayson, senior research fellow at CRESR and lead for the study



 “The OUBS’s CVSL aims to build capacity in the small and medium voluntary sector, and the findings from this study will contribute vital knowledge on the local contribution of these charities that will strengthen the role of leadership.”  


James Rees, senior research fellow at Open University Business School 


 “When the most vulnerable in communities need help it is often those working in small organisations that are there or notice first – right at the hard shoulder of support. More than that, they step in and prevent degeneration and empower change. Research like this is essential to shed light and increase awareness and understanding of their value and contribution – work that is often assumed to be a provision of the state.”


Leila Baker, head of research at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research

 “Many small and local charities are struggling to survive due to unprecedented funding pressures and rising, more complex demand for their services. People who have their lives changed as a result of local charities know how indispensable they are, but many others don’t. With complex political and policy change ahead, it’s more important than ever that we are able to provide robust evidence to answer the question of why small charities are so important – not just for individuals and communities, but the taxpayer too, and to help make a clear and compelling case for why they must be supported.” 

Paul Streets, Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales

Time frames 
Spring 2017 – Spring 2018

Further information

For further information about our contribution please email

For press information please contact Martin Webb in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 2621 or email


Refugee and Migrant Centre – ‘We deliver services in over 40 languages’

RMC provides a free, face to face, drop-in advice and support service for asylum seekers, refugees, EU and other migrants as well as members of more established BAME communities. Office of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) accredited caseworkers (Level 1 &2) give guidance in the areas of immigration, accommodation and destitution, welfare, health, education and training, employment and citizenship. The service is delivered in over 40 client languages.


We can support clients on the complete journey from within days of their arrival in the area, often destitute, right through to settling in their new communities and achieving citizenship; or we can assist with any part of that journey. Clients arrive with very little understanding of UK systems and practices, often traumatised by whatever may have caused them to flee and by their journey here; they are further hindered by the language barrier.


They come to us because people in a similar position will have advised them to come; we are respected and trusted when statutory organisations may not be, partly because the majority of our 31 staff and 100 volunteers are from the communities we assist and have undergone very similar experiences and because we can speak client languages.


Our aim is to support our clients in removing barriers to achieving equality in their new communities, thus meeting their needs and the needs of the wider community. There is no similar service within the region and clients access our provision from a wide area, often beyond that for which we are funded.


The biggest challenge is of course securing funding. We are hugely grateful to all our funders but ideally we, like all similar organisations, would love to be able to develop our services to address the expressed needs of our clients supported by long term funding. This would free the management team and trustees to concentrate on the task of developing and honing a service which is always responsive to evolving client need. Currently a massive proportion of senior managers’ time is devoted to fundraising, we have to work extremely hard to ensure that the next twelve month’s funding is in place and are often in the position of having to discuss contingency plans if funding does not materialise. It has always been our policy to maintain a broad, ‘mixed economy’ funding base and this has probably ensured our survival and expansion over 17 years, when other similar organisations have sadly struggled. However the demands of funders are ever increasing. The demand to demonstrate very precise, positive impact when the positive effects of our work are quite often delayed are ever present. It is not good enough to say we are responding to client demand.


Other challenges include our progression from a small to a medium sized organisation. It is clear to us that there is huge unmet demand for our services; in response to this, not only has our Wolverhampton/Black Country service almost doubled in size in the last few years but we have also recently opened a similar service in Birmingham. This requires changes in structure, culture, systems, relationships, attitudes etc that are not always easily negotiated and which requires time to reconnoitre, and time as observed above is in short supply.


We are often limited by lack of capacity, some potential projects have to ‘fall by the wayside’ purely because we have to prioritise and do not have enough capacity to develop them.


What would make our role easier- apart from funding and capacity issues? A change in populist opinion around migration. Lack of empathy, Ignorance and prejudice are on the increase and yet individuals have shown that when they are aware of the real stories of our clients there is huge compassion and a willingness to help. Individuals need education and that willingness needs appropriate channelling before real progress in first understanding issues and then addressing those issues, in a way that brings about long term solutions, can happen.

Heather Thomas