UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering


Evaluation Exchange: There's a place you can go

29 November 2021

The Evaluation Exchange is a partnership between UCL and voluntary and community sector organisations in Camden and East London that aims to improve evaluation practice. This blog outlines the work researchers are doing to help Central YMCA develop a Theory of Change.

Man swimming in pool

Written by Benjamin Thair

It goes deeper than you think. From the outside, Central YMCA is mostly cold glass and grey concrete, squeezed between a casino and a 24-hour café. But head in, all the way to the reception at the back, and you’ll likely be as surprised as we were. Over a balcony to the right is a cavernous three-storey drop to a sports court. At every one of the levels in between, something is happening. Someone’s on a rowing machine, or lugging around free weights, or sipping coffee with a view over the underground swimming pool. Even at four PM on a Wednesday, the echoes tell you it’s lively. While the rest of the fitness industry has been bludgeoned by the pandemic, Central YMCA has maintained a core of returning stakeholders. It speaks to a loyalty hard won and well defended. And that fact, placed next to how it looks from the street, hands us an easy analogy for the problem they’re facing. Because even though the organisation generates a humbling amount of public good, through wellness, education and support, it’s struggling to communicate that to the outside world. For everyone who hasn’t made it in the door, Central YMCA is an inscrutable concrete face. And that struggle is costing them funding.

Institutions which offer the grants that keep their services running are rejecting Central’s applications, on the grounds that it’s difficult to see the human impact of their work. As we’ve said, it’s not because that impact isn’t there. The parts of the charity which are monitored by OFSTED are forced to do a more systematic accounting, and they shine under scrutiny. However, Central is an old and multi-faceted organisation. Articulating how all its branches work towards a common goal is difficult. Funding bodies want a mechanistic view: their money goes in, Central does x, y and z and produces a desired outcome after n months. Instead, they’re currently faced with a black box. Money might go in, and something good must surely come out, but how? When? Why, even?

That’s the problem our team has been asked to help solve. Let us introduce ourselves. We have Ryan, our organisation contact, who’s the mover and shaker for the project. As well as providing insight into the problem, he’ll help implement the changes we suggest. There’s Matteo, a PhD student in chemical engineering, with a talent for detail who hopes to grow his skills in public speaking. Ben is also a PhD student, this time in chemical biology, with a knack for communication who’s looking to experience more of the wider world. Finally, there’s Agata, a final-year PhD student in modern history. She brings experience in examining society and culture, and thus a perspective that complements the otherwise STEM-leaning group.

Our goal is to build something that we, like the team working with the Institute of Imagination, hadn’t heard of before this project: a theory of change (ToC). It’s a high-level, flowchart-like diagram, showing what starting materials your organisation has, what activities you do with those materials and what your outcomes will be towards a given goal. Central are looking for a ToC which can situate everything they do within a larger purpose. This, they hope, will help them connect with funding bodies and the wider world.

Our tour around Central YMCA took us to a dance and yoga studio, a fencing lesson and a non-denominational chapel. But for everything we saw, there was more we didn’t. That’s going to be one of our main challenges. We, as outsiders, have to grasp all of Central’s services and ambitions, decide what fits where, then present our ideas to staff who have their own, well-informed opinions about what their role is. So, part of our plan is to spend time with the people who make Central tick, and incorporate their insights into our ToC. At this stage we’re gathering information on how other, similar charities have built their own theories. In the new year, we’ll test how well our ToC applies to a youth programme that’s already in the pipeline. And in the time between, our task is to listen, understand, and distil Central’s many great works into a united and compelling mission. One that fits on a side of A4.

Find out more about The Evaluation Exchange