A conversation with Matt Stevenson-Dodd
From 2010 to 2018, Matt Stevenson-Dodd was Chief Executive of Street League, a national charity using football to engage young people into training, education and employment. Having achieved a lot of success, including 42% annual growth rate in employment outcomes for young people and a 24% annual growth in turnover, he left the organisation last year to start his own business, Trust Impact, advising others on how to achieve a transparent impact culture.
During Matt’s time as Street League’s Chief Executive, the focus on social impact has increased significantly across the sector. Most charities will now have an impact report or several pages dedicated to impact on their websites, it will feature heavily in funding proposals and is used in day-to-day language.
According to Matt, this is really positive, but can easily have a negative effect too if it means an increased focus on numbers and outputs rather than genuine impact, as well as a tendency to present a perfect shop window and overlook opportunities to learn from what is not working.
“I named my business ‘Trust Impact’ because I believe trust is critical to taking risk, allowing failure and embracing a learning culture”, Matt says. “For Street League, it really worked to be transparent about where we didn’t succeed as well as where we did. To change the lives of young people living chaotic lives in difficult circumstances you have to take some risks and it will not always work. We talked about this differently, and in the process created trust. When you then learn from this you can change approach to address the issues and increase impact”.
Even after all these years talking about, and hopefully achieving social impact, many still struggle to fully understand and embrace the term and practice. “There is a tendency to over complicate it, make impact something academic. In essence, impact is the change you want to see”. Matt encourages organisations to move away from the practice of presenting as 100 per cent perfect as it does not take into account the risks that we need to take to create social change. He thinks that a more transparent approach to what works and what does not will enable increased trust to be rebuilt between the public and charities. “We are dealing with complex issues, and over-attributing success is dangerous and will erode trust over time. It is not an arms race, and by acknowledging what does not work, you can begin a process of learning”.
There are many barriers to creating an impact culture, and significantly, that Boards and Chief Executives are often concerned about too much transparency. A first step can be to ask how you know that you are successful, whether your activities actually work. Matt says the Chief Executive has to lead this. “What I often see is that the impact piece is delegated to a relatively junior person who is a great technical expert, but you really do need leadership and buy-in at the top of an organisation for this to work. Make it relatively simple. Don’t try to measure everything, focus what is most important, and think honestly and transparently about the issues you are trying to address.”
Funders and commissioners are critical for organisations in the beyond profit sector. Some take a learning approach to understanding and achieving impact. However, commissioners, trusts and foundations will need to change if they are genuinely interested in achieving change. “I hope that in the future we will see commissioners awarding contracts based on learning and trust rather than outcomes. Mechanisms like payment by results are fundamentally distrusting and less likely to achieve real impact as they lead to a numbers focus rather than encouraging risk-taking. Commit ten per cent of available funding to projects that will create learning rather than outcomes, trust the charity to deliver, and be upfront about the fact that there will be some failure, and that failure is ok!”