Camden Council & Time to Spare: learning more from monitoring

Time to Spare is a software platform that helps Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) and Public Sector organisations get a greater understanding of their impact, by making it easier to learn from the monitoring process. They have been working with Camden Council in London as part of their work on the Strategic Partners Fund.

The Strategic Partners Fund

The Strategic Partners Fund is a £2 million 7-year programme run by Camden Council offering unrestricted funding to the voluntary sector in Camden, London. Currently funding 26 organisations, the aim is to target investment to communities of the Borough with the highest levels of need and deprivation.

The fund was set up at a time when many local authorities were being forced by austerity measures to cut back on non-statutory services, such as funding of VCS organisations. Camden sought to buck this trend by providing massive investment in the voluntary sector through unrestricted funding, allowing them to spend the funds as they thought was appropriate. This type of funding is rare in the sector, and is seen as being twice as valuable as the more common restricted funding.

Failing to learn from the monitoring process

However, unrestricted funding provides a challenge in monitoring the effectiveness of each grant. To solve this, a monitoring system involving 9 separate forms was created; asking questions on subjects including governance, community wellbeing and attendance information.

The organisations interpret the questions and fill out the forms differently, making the data difficult to analyse.

In addition, the time consuming nature of the forms, coupled with other funders needing different requirements, added to the administrative burden placed on monitoring and made it virtually impossible to learn about both the process and the impact of the fund.

There were also misunderstandings about who benefits from the monitoring process. The majority of funded organisations were collecting data mainly to satisfy monitoring requirements, believing that it was useful information to understand the collective impact of the grant. However, Camden Council believed that the main benefit of the process was that it encouraged the Strategic Partners to learn from the data they collected and to understand the effectiveness of their own services. This disconnect meant that the potential benefits and learning were not always realised.

The solution: Time to Spare

The Strategic Partnership Team in Camden wanted to simplify the monitoring process and encourage everyone to learn more from it. So, they appointed Time to Spare to give organisations access to a software platform that they could use to easily collect the data needed for monitoring.

The simple tool supports learning about the effectiveness of programmes by analysing data in real time, giving organisations immediate feedback on their work. They can also use the system to collect and analyse information for other funders, which allows them to concentrate more on service delivery.

A “funder view” allows the Council team to gain insights from the monitoring process. It shows anonymised and aggregated data from each organisation grouped by themes and broken down into different reports, allowing them to see information in real time and cuts down on much of the back and forth involved in the process.

The impacts so far

The system was piloted with 3 organisations over 6 months, and received overwhelmingly positive feedback due to the many benefits for both the Council staff and organisations. The process was significantly reduced, and both gained new and actionable insights. The Council acquired greater understanding of the impact of the organisations they were funding, while the organisations learned more from their own data collection processes. They have been able to quickly analyse projects and take action from learning during the delivery phase. Also, being able to see these in real time encouraged a more collaborative way of working, as they were able to discuss changes when they happened, rather than waiting until the end of the year.

Since January, the platform has started to be rolled out amongst the remaining 23 organisations in the programme. The benefits to these organisations is clear: spend less time reporting and more time learning.

An example of real time Funder Insights from Time to Spare

How Time to Spare is helping Camden Council

Services during the coronavirus pandemic

As coronavirus started to hit, many charities went from delivering services on site to supporting individuals in their homes, either through food delivery or regular phone calls. This type of service is much more intensive and resulted in a major decrease in the number of people that were regularly being contacted by charities each month.

Using Time to Spare, Camden Council were able to see this decrease, and started to work on ways to increase the capacity of the sector, through using volunteers and extra funding. The level of insight provided by Time to Spare allowed Camden Council to see the scale of the drop off in real time – data that would otherwise not be available.

Decrease in the number of people regularly contacted by charities during COVID-19

Reaching different groups

Time to Spare allows you to see in real time where service users are coming from. Without specialist mapping software, it is difficult to see where people come from to visit different charities and how that varies between activities run by a charity.

Time to Spare shows in real time where service users are coming from

This feature was used by one organisation in tandem with other public data to examine where the service users of their older people’s project were coming from. They found that not only were some service users coming from as far afield as Hackney, but that they could do more to target a nearby estate that had high levels of loneliness amongst older people. Using this information, they are now focusing on working more with people from those estates as well as trying to understand why people are travelling so far to see them. Being able to see this information whilst they are delivering the project allows them to make these improvements before the project comes to an end.

The tool also gives Camden Council a borough-wide view of all services, helping to see if services are evenly spread across the Borough or should be encouraged elsewhere.

Youth services over the summer holiday period

The summer holidays provide a different requirement for local charities, as youth clubs and other services for young people become an even more vital part of the services they deliver. During the long summer months, they allow young people to stay busy and make it easy for them to stay in touch with their friends in a safe environment.

Under traditional monitoring processes, this change is hard to see. However, as Time to Spare displays attendance in real time and in an intuitive way (rather than as a number at the end of the year), they are able to see clearly how services change over time.

Insights such as the change in delivery are helping Camden Council better understand the services delivered and are being used to frame future conversations about the best ways to support organisations.

Challenges

As with anything new, there have been challenges during the process. The service involves a shift in mindset; from monitoring being a burden on organisations, to something that they can learn from. For organisations who were already looking to change the way they worked and struggled using paper/excel based systems, this was an opportunity to upgrade. However, some already had bespoke processes, and others were not at a stage where they could look at their monitoring process due to other factors. These both provided different challenges.

For organisations with monitoring processes already in place, the challenge has been to make the system flexible enough to adapt to these organisations and minimise disruption to the way they work. Contrarily, for organisations not ready to embrace Time to Spare at an organisational level, the challenge was to make it as easy as possible to record information and gain meaningful insights. For both groups, we found that once information had been input and real insights could be seen, they started to embrace the system much more.

Looking to the future

Since the successful pilot, Time to Spare has been contacted by other Council teams and organisations who are looking to simplify and improve their monitoring processes and the way they work with the local voluntary sector. Ultimately, Time to Spare aims to increase collaboration between funding organisations such as Camden Council and the organisations they fund, encouraging shared learning approaches that should benefit everyone.

All graphs shown in this document are not based on real data and are used for example purposes.

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