What we learned from 400 expressions of interest for the Connected Communities Innovation Fund
In autumn last year, we received over 400 expressions of interest (EOIs) for our Connected Communities Innovation Fund. Since then we have been working with a small number of the best innovators to develop full proposals for the fund. In these 400 EOIs, there was a huge diversity of projects: projects developing volunteer-led emergency response strategies, projects focused on peer support and mentoring, projects that provide flexible volunteering opportunities, and other projects that connected citizens to each other and to public service outcomes. They also came from a range of types of organisations including charities, social enterprises, local authorities, and international NGOs.
Many of the EOIs we received described promising ideas and approaches to addressing the needs of citizens and increasing the reach and impact of public services. But many also needed to work on their ideas a bit more in order to better communicate exactly where (and why) social action and volunteering have a clear role to play.
Clarity: getting to the point
The best EOIs tell us what they are going to do and how they will do it clearly and concisely. This could be in terms of the purpose of the project –what does this project set out to achieve? This could also be in terms of the need and demand for the innovation –what issue is the project trying to address and why is this important, and for whom is this a problem? This could also be in terms of the process or activities involved – who are the volunteers and what will they specifically be doing? The more clarity or logic around these questions, the easier it is for us to understand what the innovation is and why we should support it.
Impact volunteering: social action as a means to an end
Impact volunteering means that the time volunteers spend directly relates to and impacts the specific outcomes that the project seeks to affect. For example, the time peer supporters or mentors spend with others directly influences (and increases) their emotional or social wellbeing, or in the case of career mentoring, readiness for work or employability. The time volunteer walking group leaders spend walking with others outdoors can directly influence participants’ health and physical wellbeing, and the time environmental volunteers spend cleaning local sites can directly influence the quality of the environment. Understanding specific volunteer roles and what they entail helps to think about who those volunteers might be, and how they might be recruited. The best projects are clear about volunteer roles and activities and know how to reach these volunteers to motivate them to get involved in social action.
Evidence, measurement and impact: finding out what works and what doesn’t
Important to the success of an EOI is a clear logic model. Many theories of change consider outcomes in terms of a ladder of impact – for example, raising awareness of a health issue leads to increased activity to address that issue, which ultimately leads to a decrease in the prevalence of that health issue. Frequently EOIs consider volunteering activities as being deployed for all sorts of good, or suggesting volunteers are not bound to do any specific activity nor choose any specific outcome to focus on. Sometimes there is a risk of doing too many things and not focusing on an impact area, and while recognising that doing good in any way is a positive contribution to society, a lack of specificity renders projects very difficult to evaluate because it prevents attempts at causal analysis. The best EOIs are therefore those whose theories of change clearly demonstrate how specific voluntary activities produce positive outcomes alongside public services, that we can learn and gain insights through the evidence they collect. And that doesn’t mean projects need to be already well-evidenced; we rarely expect to see projects beyond Level 1 or 2 on Nesta’s Standards of Evidence, which simply require a coherent theory of change or some efforts towards data collection. Many EOIs rate themselves much higher than they were or aimed to reach Level 4 or 5, when Level 3 is already really excellent and uncommon to see for most interventions.
Links to public services: what are you doing for society?
Some projects may be entirely embedded within public services (for example, hospital volunteers or police special constables), while others work next to public services (for example, volunteer run libraries or volunteer tutors). Some projects, however, describe activities that sit entirely outside of public services – for example, teaching children how to sail, or engaging volunteers in data collection activities without indicating what this data might be used for to affect a positive social change. The projects with the highest potential are those that can demonstrate a strong relationship to public services and can begin to move the needle in terms of how we might think about public service delivery in the future. This means we pay particular attention to those EOIs that engage with public service commissioning and consider this in their partnership and sustainability strategies.
Technology, platforms, and apps: do we need an app for that?
We often see EOIs describing smartphone apps or web-based platforms that highlight volunteering opportunities, generate awareness through information sharing, or match volunteers to opportunities provided by other charitable or social organisations. An app can certainly increase the efficiency of finding volunteering opportunities, but in and of itself is not impact volunteering. The problem tends not to be connecting volunteers to opportunities or making it easier to do micro- or flexible-volunteering (volunteers giving less time more sporadically). Instead, the problem tends to be the actual design of the opportunities themselves. Often there is a demand for more flexible volunteering options—which may be digitally-enabled—but the supply of these kinds of micro-opportunities is lacking.
The most convincing digital projects will have done some early stage prototyping that runs potential participants or volunteers through a simulation or scenario before the technology is fully developed. Developing technology that is effective for facilitating social impact requires a solid grasp of the user’s experience and insights into their behaviour. The question to ask in terms of technology is “could this work without it?” rather than “what app could we build?”
Partnerships and agreements: increasing breadth and depth
While not required, partnerships increase the chances of a project’s success by involving delivery partners, strategic partners, development partners, local institutions and organisations. Some EOIs indicate that partnerships would be crucial to the delivery of their project—that the project could not exist without the partner—but do not indicate that those partnerships were in place. In cases like this, it’s uncertain the partnership will be put in place to make the project a success. Because the CCIF is focused on mobilising the time and talents of many more people to deliver public service outcomes, the best applications are those that demonstrate strong links to partner organisations that can really maximise their impact through geographical scaling or by providing valuable resources in kind.
Innovation: backing creative, unusual ideas that can't be backed elsewhere
The most innovative projects think about how a change in their working model could really increase their impact. This could mean adding something new to their current service, setting up new types of interventions that complement the impact of other work going on already in a specific place, facilitating social action to benefit new target groups, or shifting their delivery model to reach many more people (for instance through a digital intervention). As a government innovation fund, for the CCIF we were most impressed by the innovative projects that increase the resources available to achieve social goals, give public services access to new expertise and knowledge, reach new places and people that public services cannot reach, create better services and reciprocal value for the people who give their time, and help to create fundamental change in the way we respond to social needs and challenges.