CLIC Sargent impact report: What's the secret recipe?

An impact report that only includes achievements is the charity equivalent of an estate agent salivating about the best bits of a house but failing to mention the distinct smell of must or cracks in the ceiling. At least that’s what we think at CLIC Sargent, and it’s this mind-set which has shaped our impact report for the last two years.

In 2018, our impact report received praise for its tone, its approach to putting the voice of service users over corporate spiel and, most of all, its honesty about things we didn’t get right. For all the loveliness it received, it created a problem: how on earth can we raise the bar for the next one?

The ‘difficult second album’

When we kicked off this year’s report, the team sat down and, piece by piece, cruelly tore apart the previous one. We felt being overly critical would give us the best chance of nailing what we’d dubbed ‘the difficult second album’. Once we’d identified some flaws, it presented us with three main aims to drive the new report.

The first was to ramp up the transparency. In the previous year, the element that really got people talking was our preparation to be open and honest about our failings in print. But when we looked back, that section – called ‘Hands Up, We’re Not Perfect’ – was only one page. For 2019, we pushed this much further. We dedicated more space to the things that didn’t go well; we asked our staff and the public what questions they think charities should cover in a report and committed to answering them, and we created a film with members of our exec team sharing what they wished they’d done better in the previous 12 months. It’s a conversation that organisations usually keep behind closed doors, but we recorded ours and are happy for the world to watch.

The role of transparency

With transparency at the core, we changed decided to call our annual report our ‘impact and accountability report’, and titled this year’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The new name gave us equal space to celebrate our achievements, be open and honest about the things we didn’t get right, and shout about systemic issues, which make life harder for young cancer patients and their parents.

There are a few reasons why transparency is important to us. The main is that we believe supporters have a right to know, because without them CLIC Sargent doesn’t exist. Sharing where we went wrong keeps us accountable and helps us learn. And the more we learn the better service we provide for children and young people with cancer, and their families.

There’s another simple reason why we’re open about our failings – we know people aren’t stupid. Going back to our estate agent illustration, not many people fall for how they only focus on the good stuff, and we don’t see why a charity would expect supporters to believe everything that happened in the previous year was a rip-roaring success. Nobody is perfect, and our supporters wouldn’t believe us if we tried to suggest we were.

We believe being transparent has benefits. It helps people trust us, which is vital at a time when trust in charities remains as fragile as my toddler’s tantrum threshold. We also believe being transparent allows us to challenge misconceptions with less risk of being accused of having an agenda.

The second vision for this year’s report was ‘don’t interfere with service-user stories’. In last year’s report we launched the ‘Their Voice Over Ours’ mantra, but looking back, we noticed we’d shoehorned our corporate selves into the stories. They were structured around our service model and most were accompanied by achievements or statistics. We did this to back up the service user’s story, but it felt a little like we’d jumped into a place that should have been more sacred.

We wanted to be more authentic this year, so each young person or parent told their story and CLIC Sargent’s involvement without the corporate voice muscling in. Why? Because we know supporters generally don’t care first and foremost what the charity says. In CLIC Sargent’s case, the reason our amazing supporters do what they do is because they want to help children, young people and their families get through the devastating effects of cancer. That’s what matters most to us too, and we took a step back. As much as we like to talk (and we do), we know our big mouth is nothing without the voices of children and young people with cancer.

The flawed formula

The third and final aim was to demonstrate our performance to supporters in a more useful way than stereotypical cost ratios. We know some people support a charity based on how much money goes on their frontline service, but we think it’s a flawed formula, which has serious ramifications for a charity if they lose out in this way.

We came up with a formula to show the number of people reached, the impact on those people, and the money spent on delivering that reach and impact. Each element has to work together. Reaching a small number can be a great thing, assuming the impact is high and money spent is relatively low. Equally, reaching a large number of people doesn’t mean much if the impact is minimal or takes billions of pounds to achieve it.

Only time will tell if our formula is the best way to judge a charity, but for now we hope it’s helpful for our supporters. We’d love to see other charities move away from the easy but not always useful, pence-in-the-pound comparison.

So, the ‘difficult second album’ is out there and has been well-received so far. But now, we have an even bigger headache – where do we go next year? One of the team has just floated the idea of a transparency musical...

You can view the report here.

Adam Petrie is associate director of brand and marketing communications at CLIC Sargent

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