Information as Liberation: Bidwill Uniting and Amplify Online

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An organisation’s ability to quantitatively measure and understand their social impact has historically been a privilege; a complex and expensive exercise, often taking at least one year and at times requiring upwards of $90,000.

This is a struggle that Bec Reidy, Manager at Bidwill Uniting is familiar with.

A small not-for-profit service, Bidwill Uniting runs a community centre in Bidwill, a suburb in Western Sydney comprised of a higher-than-average 60% public housing rate.

Strengths-based and goal-oriented, Bidwill delivers a range of programs that empower and support members of the Bidwill and greater Mount Druitt community to break free from cycles of entrenched disadvantage.

“We do community development, and we aim to work with people’s strengths and aspirations, rather than coming in and telling people what they need,” says Bec.

“We help get programs off the ground that the community want, we help the community to advocate within systems, as individuals and collectively, and we run some programs ourselves as well.”

Finding the time

A Social Sciences UNSW Honours graduate with more than a decade of experience in community development, Bec is well aware of the importance of evaluation for any initiative working towards better social outcomes.

Unfortunately, she has also experienced first-hand its inaccessibility to not-for-profit organisations, that too often lack the funding, time or expertise.

A few different evaluation measures - fluctuating in consistency and significance - have been in place at Bidwill Uniting over the years, mostly in the form of interviews and surveys conducted by friends in academic fields or students looking for work experience, and via the Bidwill team themselves informally receiving feedback from clients through casual conversation.

However, the challenge for Bidwill has always been in reporting these measures.

“It’s just the time, honestly, we don’t even have a website at the moment. We try hard to plan, but at the end of the day we’re on the ground with very few resources so we just end up doing the work,” says Bec.

In supporting 10-15 residents each day, Bec reflects:

“It’s extremely frustrating. We collect a little bit of data and sort of have a little bit of ongoing evaluation about what are we doing well and how can it improve, but not a lot in writing.”

That was why hearing about the Centre for Social Impact’s recently launched Amplify Social Impact Online (Amplify Online) - a free or low-cost online quantitative measurement tool, tailored specifically for community organisations like Bidwill Uniting - was particularly exciting news for Bec and her colleagues.

“I went to the initial workshop, and it looked really good because we can put in our own existing measures for our ‘Getting Ahead’ program and that will be an easier way for us to track those over time.”

An online automated repository that can build and distribute surveys, as well as analyse and store quantitative data, Amplify Online houses a growing database of over 250 indicators (also known as survey questions) across seven social issue areas that have been tested for psychometric quality by CSI researchers.

The accessibility of these high-quality measures removes the huge task of selecting reliable indicators, enabling a user to create and distribute a rigorous survey in less than 30 minutes.

As the platform is free to use for small to medium not-for-profits, these organisations are now empowered to respond to the information that identifies their strengths and areas for improvement.

“Amplify Online will give us the time to focus on programs and people, rather than stressing about demonstrating outcomes.”

Systems thinking

Even before Amplify Online, access to information as a form of liberation has been at the heart of Bidwill Uniting’s philosophy, along with building the confidence and autonomy of individuals to choose what’s best for them.

Their most significant program, ‘Getting Ahead’, employs a systems-thinking approach to economic class and guides participants to reflect on their own positioning, supporting them to navigate structures of economic disadvantage - or teaching them how to “play the game” as Bec describes it.

“It’s [systems thinking] the only way people can understand why they’re in the position they’re in. The first few weeks of the program are really hard and intense because a lot of people who are poor don’t see themselves as poor,” explains Bec.

“Some people have never heard of the poverty line, for instance, and when they’re shown that if you’re on a Centrelink benefit, you’re almost certainly below the poverty line, for them to start realising that the government pays them below the certain amount of money needed to survive, that’s really confronting for them.”

“But it’s also really empowering, because they can start to realise that there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s not their fault that they can’t make ends meet, it’s kind of a double-edged realisation sometimes, but it is the start for people to be able to make new decisions.”

What’s next?

Covering the quantitative element of Bidwill’s evaluation, Amplify Online comprises just one half of the solution to challenges around evaluation.

“A lot of our achievements are very hard to document. They’re qualitative, and it’s very hard to capture when someone’s doing very well, you know where they’ve come from. It’s hard to put that in writing without sort of just telling a story,” Bec says.

At this stage, Amplify Online doesn’t automate the collection and analysis of qualitative data, recognising that this information is nuanced and complex. It does however, free up time and money previously spent on capturing the numbers that demonstrate impact.

In the long run, this means that these resources can be allocated to richer qualitative research; the information capturing the human side behind the numbers.

Whilst stronger qualitative evaluation is part of Bidwill’s long-term vision, Bec’s more immediate intention for their anticipated freed-up time and resourcing will be allocated to enhancing the day-to-day work that Bidwill Uniting delivers.

“It will help the communities we work with indirectly by freeing up our time and potentially accessing more funding to run more programs. A better program will better meet the needs of the community and be more responsive to what’s actually going to help them.”