Thursday 19 January 2017

Is there a science of charity, and would we want one?

A few months ago Joe Saxton, Driver of Ideas at nfpSynergy, wrote a thought-provoking blog challenging our sector’s enthusiasm for randomised control trials. Joe’s article and the debate started in the comments, were fascinating and deserve a read. But it prompted consideration of the question one step removed – before we look at charities borrowing science’s tools, is it appropriate to compare charitable and scientific worlds?

Randomised control trials are the current highest point of evidence collection in the scientific method, a method whose genesis is hundreds of years old and whose structure is supported by countless examples of error, trial, error, improvement. When scientists operate, their experiments rest not just on the shoulders of giants, but on the backs of a pyramid of giants, trolls, charlatans and visionaries. Science learns from itself, from its mistakes, around the globe and across the centuries.

The scientific method demands that results be replicable, and expects an important experiment will be run by entirely different people time and again. Science has operated for decades within the infrastructure of the academic world, with a host of peer review journals and challenging conventions, allowing distant practitioners to test the validity of claims and build on success. Rivals and successors pore over datasets, read failed experiments and negative results, perfect techniques. The world has far more STEM graduates than experts in charitable operation or social policy research. The sector’s main notable academic journal is that of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Open Research. It is excellent, and it is, of course, a science journal.
This is not the only difference. Science and technology are wedded more firmly to economic progress. 

Shareholders, government, hospital directors and the public take note of new drugs, stem cell breakthroughs, rumours of groundbreaking green energy generators. Charity practitioners have nowhere near this level of awareness – not because we are lazy or intellectually inferior, but because we have no such support structure or history of sharing. Too often in the charity sector, it is not just a case of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing: it is two fingers on the same hand each reaching out to grasp the same object and still failing join up.

In the corporate world, certainly in the boardrooms of pharmaceutical and tech companies, directors are inquisitive and acquisitive. There are aware of all their competitors’ projects, what newcomers try, innovation springing up in far-flung corners, blossoming SMEs. They are not only concerned with keeping their own company afloat but with exploring expansion on the frontier. They have teams of researchers comparing clusters of studies and meta-analyses to scope opportunity. They are supported by both the academic literature and by business media – the Financial Times and rolling TV news. Likewise they have a worldwide network of business schools, economics departments, management courses, decades of theories on effective leadership and proactive governance.

There are of course a great number of collaboration efforts in the charity sector, from the Good Exchange to the concept of “generous leadership”, from joint initiatives between funder organisations and umbrella bodies to local projects in the same town or village. One of Charity Futures’ ambitions is to compile a directory of these, listing free and paid resources on charity academia, leadership and governance training, and emergency support. Hopefully by signposting both collaborations and smaller ventures, even more efficient partnerships can be forged. This could grow in utility by adding neutral reviews and learning aids, so a bewildered new board member could easily find out the different tools available to help her.

The other difference between science and voluntary worlds is simply that a lot of charities do not operate in a manner with quantifiable results. The goal of some is to enable a sport to be played, or to make a group’s life more tolerable, hopefully enjoyable. There are sector activities which suit social science measurements, like helping ex-prisoners reintegrate or educating children, but a host of important charitable activities are little to do with numbers. Has enough thought been devoted to testing an ethical component, are quality-adjusted life years enough?

Trying to get a picture of impact by asking beneficiaries to rate their experiences feels like missing the point, even if methodologies were sound enough that they could be compared across location and type – which they aren’t. Some of the largest management consultancies have been trying for years to set out a standardised system to rate charity effectiveness and each model sinks on its flaws. What the voluntary sector does brilliantly is use hard science evidence in campaigning – against smoking near children for example – and funds investigation of this type. But that does not contribute to a central corpus on how charities themselves campaign.

The question of randomised control trials speaks to the charity bubble’s current focus on, possibly even obsession with, transparency and impact. You get the sense that many charity leaders believe that if we could only display our accounts and give hard numbers on how many people we’re helping, then the public and press would return to treating all charities as angelic.

This is a limp hope. Few people have the time or inclination to check the accounts and annual statements that charities painstakingly polished, even fewer compare different possible donations in such detail. Even if they do, they may not have the statistical grounding to make informed decisions, or may leave with the wrong message, that all the charities they compared spend too much on staffing, premises, IT and training. Certainly the sector should not retreat on transparency, but nor should it slog on under the delusion that once we reach a certain crystal-clear level, the public will fall in love.

Another difference charities may be more happy about. The sector is far less regulated, and while the Charity Commission comes down hard on some charities and may be seen as too bureaucratic, it pales in comparison to pharmaceutical watchdogs. We have nothing that functions like the FDA/MHRA testing and delaying new drugs for years. The Charity Commission does not review every new project, grant or intervention that a charity plans, not even very large experiments. Likewise most donors or funders would not be able to block a charity functioning.

Try as we might we cannot create a ready-made academic milieu for the voluntary sector, with the centuries of history, the international network of journals, the expectation of challenge, refinement and peer review. Multi-institutional multi-national collaborations do not spring up overnight, but after years of relationship building, sharing techniques and ethics, agreeing shared goals. But this is certainly a goal to have in mind: through thought leadership, debate, seminars and working with the university sector across disciplines, we must strive to introduce higher standards of intellectual rigour and collective progress.

This article first appeared in Third Sector magazine, here

Sir Stephen Bubb is Director of Charity Futures. Jonathan Lindsell is the Research & Programme Manager of Charity Futures.