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Measuring value in the age of new power

The Cares Family is a group of community networks reducing loneliness and isolation by bringing older and younger neighbours together in rapidly changing cities. With support from Nesta and the National Lottery Community Fund’s Accelerating Ideas programme that helps organisations expand and evaluate their impact, North London Cares grew to add South London Cares, Manchester Cares, Liverpool Cares and East London Cares. Alex Smith shares his reflections of what it means to measure value in the age of new power.

Last week, I presented at a seminar at the University of Central Lancashire’s Centre for Citizenship and Community. The title of the discussion was ‘Measuring intergenerational community connection: impact evaluation in the age of new power’. The blurb for the event dug deeper into the themes:

Community-led movements are increasingly playing a role in health and wellbeing. Those social movements are effective because they reflect the fullness of people's lived experiences, respect the stories that make people who they are, and harness the agency of people and places and the relationships between them. But in an age where subjectivity is key, what role is there for objectivity? And in a field in which top-down metrics have been all powerful for so long, how do we develop more ambitious bottom-up approaches to evaluation?

These are complex questions – of power and powerlessness, heritage, healing and hope, changing systems and cultures. They’re topics at the heart of our generational challenges and opportunities, so 90 minutes was never going to be enough to even scratch the surface of issues that intersect class, race, equity, inclusion, connection and how to build more cohesive communities in an unequal world that’s changing fast.

But they’re questions that I wanted to ask in a particular frame because, increasingly, as The Cares Family has grown from a tiny community project to a national organisation with profile and influence, we need more than ever to stay true to our values as a community-led organisation, proudly bottom-up rather than top-down – working with people rather than ‘doing to’ people, of the community rather than for the community.

And so at the seminar, I talked about the challenges of evaluating community work, which can sometimes, in its current trends, feel akin to judging people’s life experiences. I talked about how too many commissioning contracts require the completion of impact surveys which, in their deficit-based questioning, can strip people of their agency rather than recognise the power in people’s stories. I talked about how we have allowed a price system to measure value, how corporatism and bean-counting in the charity sector have permeated how we measure community, and what we think of community, but in no way reflect the values of community.

I’ve seen this in various tools of measuring loneliness which are ‘validated’ but nevertheless academic, remote and cold. I’ve seen it in funding streams that require that community organisations ask the people they work with about their sexual orientation, religious beliefs and gender assignment on the very first meeting. I recognise and promote the importance of ensuring inclusion. But delving into people’s personal identity before allowing them the chance to be seen or heard is not the way to build trust at the local level. Many of these tools perpetuate division and isolation, rather than measure it, much less solve it.

To be sure, aggregated statistics can be useful. They’re a marker of progress. But whose progress are they marking really – the people who are answering the questions or the people who are asking them? Whose value are they measuring – the value in community or the value defined by investors? What do aggregate statistics and the cold questions that take us there tell us about what people in communities really want to say – often with nuance and heart, fullness and fear and love? And, crucially, who’s asking the questions in the first place, and with what biases? As Caroline Criado Perez has shown, if it’s always the same people framing what’s valuable – bureaucracy, philanthropy, established power – we will always have the same blind spots to inequity and inclusion.

People’s stories matter, so we should be seeking more subjectivity in community research, not more objectivity. The power in relationships matters, and so we need to respect how people connect, and the full lived experiences of people’s lives. And evaluation matters, so we need to do better to create new innovations in measurement – embedded participatory techniques, experiential learning, storytelling and richer qualitative approaches. That’s why, through bold programmes like the Accelerating Ideas programme, The Cares Family is proud to be exploring new ways of measuring our impact – because we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

Our job is not to ‘shift power to communities’. It’s to get systems to recognise that power is already in communities, and that those systems derive their own authority from people, their places and the relationships in between. And it’s to get people in communities to recognise that they don’t have to wait for big business or big government or big foundations to fix a problem that they can see right in front of their eyes – but that we all have the agency to come together to make change locally and to bend power towards our own needs, not the other way around.

The clue is in the name. It’s about value. What matters most is how the people who are experiencing that value – not the people who may be paying for it – define it and articulate it. As we look to the future of impact evaluation, and work with partners across the public, private and community sectors, that should be our guiding principle: ‘power over’ is part of the problem; ‘power to’ is a means to an end; ‘power with’ is the destination that will lift up community, and relationships, and empathy.


Alex Smith

Alex Smith is founder and CEO of North London Cares and South London Cares.