Category Archives: Social Impact

The Value of Critical Friends



(Picture Credit: Bill Ferriter)

One of the most challenging and enjoyable elements of my work is being commissioned to provide Critical Friend reviews. In the increasingly crowded social space it is even more important that organisations have a digital strategy which connects, speaks and listens to often diverse audiences. Every organisation needs to show how their engagement strategies are generating tangible results and impact through digital leadership and culture. Over the last few years we have been carrying out an increasing number of critical friend reviews for public, private and not for profit organisations.

A critical friend review is an external and uniquely independent opinion of an organisation’s positioning, strategy or initiatives. It comes from a perspective that is sympathetic to what the organisation is trying to achieve and reflects the context whilst identifying opportunities, likely challenges and pitfalls.

A Critical Friend review addresses these fundamental questions:

  • How is your organisation positioned now?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • How are you showing that your work makes a difference and has an impact?

In answering these questions, the emphasis is on being honest and ‘telling it how it is’. We recognise that this can be difficult but to be effective a critical friend review must be unafraid to comment on where the chosen approach is unlikely to deliver the desired results and to suggest different approaches.

Why is this valuable now?

The simple reason is that we are in a challenging economic and political climate with rapidly changing expectations of how services will be delivered. Consequently, organisations must develop new and unprecedented ways of working. As senior managers frequently tell me “Our approach to digital transformation needs to be different from anything we have done before”. With fewer resources available, and with more riding on outcomes than ever before, organisations cannot afford to make mistakes in the way they respond to these challenges.  A critical friend review helps organisation prepare for navigating uncharted territory through market intelligence which has been gained over many years of working across the social sector.

I believe it is crucial for proposed approaches to be subjected to independent scrutiny. The feedback will not inevitably be negative: it will identify what is being done well and can highlight strengths and opportunities that may have been missed. A great deal of our work consists in recommending organisations, initiatives and resources which our clients may be unaware of – but which could greatly assist in the achievement of their objectives.

Successive governments have recognised the importance of critical friending for the public sector.  We draw on the ‘Critical Friend Framework’ published in 2004 which identifies three dimensions of critical friending: ‘inputs’ (looking at the skills and experience involved in a project), process and structure (considering the way in which projects are organised) and outcomes (evaluating what the organisation is aiming to achieve and prospects of success).

In acting as a critical friend, we are able to draw upon many years of working with adult and children’s services, health, housing, social enterprises, entrepreneurs, academics and charities. Our knowledge and expertise encompasses policy, research, marketing, communications and digital technology. This ‘width and depth’ – together with an ability to look at a situation from a range of different perspectives – is really an essential requirement of a critical friend. There is little value in being told what you already know!

What this means in practice is illustrated by a comment from one of our clients Barnwood Trust,

 “Embarking on a new website and a whole new approach to the way we were working, and on top of that a new brand for it all, was a big and sometimes daunting job. We spent a long time researching, planning and testing each of our ideas and concepts, making sure that we were developing something that people wanted and felt would be useful to them. It was during this process that we came across Shirley and her work as a critical friend.

“Shirley took on the role of critical friend for our new brand and website, You’re Welcome  and provided us with a completely different and invaluable perspective. Not only did Shirley provide a thought provoking report from which we have been able to develop and also strengthen our ideas but she also provided support throughout the review on the phone. It was extremely useful to talk our work through with someone with as much knowledge and experience as Shirley. To have a report at the end of it really helped with the work and how we developed it. Shirley was an absolute pleasure to work with and we will definitely be looking to draw from her skills and experience again in the future.”

Transformational change across the health, care and housing and social sectors now requires digital leadership, market intelligence and approaches which acknowledge the value of radical thinking. 

Expectations of more openness, transparency and accountability in publicly funded services along with the immediacy of social media in highlighting disconnects between the rhetoric and reality of how organisations present themselves makes the role of  a independent critical friend even more important.

I am often asked to comment on projects, websites, digital products and services but the response often needs more than a tweet (or two!). I am happy to discuss how a critical friend review could help your organisation. Please feel free to contact me.  @shirleyayres

Shirley is co-founder of the Connected Care Network which supports digital transformation and engagement using technology & social media for social good.





Some #HseParty14 highlights

I was delighted to be at @hseparty in Manchester last week. The energy and creativity was in full flow over a very packed two days. Housing, like the health and care sectors, are confronting real challenges in terms of their role and how community services can be delivered most effectively. Thinking differently and exploring the potential of new collaborations and partnerships offers so many opportunities. To get a sense of the diversity of activities and debate have a look at the #hseparty14 Twitter stream.

The #powerplayers14 Awards dinner faithfully recorded by @johnpopham was a real celebration of the growing influence of digital technology and social media across the housing sector.  explains the thinking which informed the Power Players list and the role of super connectors.


The housing question time provoked much interest and debate. My feeling is that every event should now include a live streamed question time! Thanks to the excellent panel Anne McCrossan,  Nick AtkinCaroline KingJames Pargetter and to John Popham who suggested the idea and recorded the debate. Definitely worth watching.

“Co-production is the way forward” and how to communicate through balloons. Lovely lessons from the  Balloon Orchestra Workshop


Paul Taylor’s thoughts on “Do Housing Associations need Innovation Labs?” were shared at the Chartered Institute of Housing annual conference which was being held at the same time as House Party. Innovation and new ways of thinking were a constant theme at House Party so it was fascinating to see the debate generated by #dronegate which, in fairness, was only a small element of his presentation.


And finally a big thank you to Matt Leach from HACT and Esther Foreman from the Social Change Agency who had the vision and passion to make House Party such a success.






Keep it simple Make it beautiful Have fun – sharing through @HaikuDeck

A year on from when @paulbromford published a Haiku Deck celebrating #60yearsoflearning and this October in a special birthday edition I invited some of the people I admire to share their secrets of being social online.


Paul and I are very aware of how important it is to share knowledge and information especially for people new to social media. Whilst we have not quite been able to achieve our aim of creating one new presentation a month throughout 2014 we hope the following Haiku Decks will give you ideas for different ways of presenting your thoughts and ideas.

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

We are taking a summer break because we have both been busy with #powerplayers14 and Paul has been busy with the Bromford Lab. He has produced a series of Haiku Decks to explain the purpose of the Lab, launch a recruitment campaign through Twitter and encouraging people to get involved.


Paul initially inspired me to explore the potential of Haiku Deck with the following presentation which has now had an impressive 90,000 views.

If you are thinking of starting a blog these top tips from  will hopefully inspire you!

Useful guidance from Paul about developing your own personal social media policy

Hot tip – add your Haiku Deck on slideshare and you will reach an even bigger audience!


What is your big question about social impact? Join the #hubmsi debate

On the 24th January I am be chairing a debate about the Challenge of Measuring Social Impact at Hub Westminster. If you wish to contribute to the debate online please use the hashtag #hubmsi.

There has been a lot of discussion and numerous reports written about the value of measuring social impact alongside many challenges about understanding the relevance and influence of social impact. According to New Philanthropy Capital  75% of charities measure some or all of their work, and nearly three-quarters have invested more in measuring results over the last five years.

Providing evidence of your organisation’s social impact has become increasingly important. Most charities cite requirements from outside funders as the key driver for measuring impact, as well as the wish to tell stakeholders about the social value they generate. The public sector and charities are inextricably linked and a number of social enterprises are reliant on public funding either through contracts or grants.

Complex social problems require a collaborative approach across many sectors. Being able to demonstrate your social impact and social value are essential to maintain public and political support in these challenging times.  I invited people on Twitter to submit their one big question about social impact and received the following responses:

Panelists have contributed their thoughts in advance of the debate Social Impact Assessment in India @pathik10

How do I measure social impact? My answer @Brownsdon

Challenging thoughts about measuring social impact @davidsocialsp

“Is it useful for social impact to measured using systems – such as SROI – that attempt to put cash figures on the social impact generated by particularly activities?”

“What role does social impact measurement play in the overall battle for resources? Should resources be targetted at generating the greatest possible volume of positive social impact – if we were in the position to agree on what that meant – or are certain types of positive social impact a higher priority than others?”

Some recommended reading and resources about social impact measurement

Evaluation on the (Cognitive and Digital) Edge Keiron Kirkland Nominet Trust

Measurement a force for good? Daniel Robinson Nominet Trust (mentions two measurement tools)

Social Impact Investing Will Be the New Venture Capital – but how do you measure it? Big Society Capital

Making an Impact New Philanthropy Capital

Evidence Standards for Impact Investment Nesta Impact Investment Fund

A Guide to Social Return on Investment The SROI Network

‘Measuring Up’ a new pilot self-assessment tool to improve  planning, monitoring and evaluation Charity Evaluation Services

Measuring and Demonstrating Impact Guardian Social Enterprise Network (December 2012)

In case you don’t understand social impact tech terms I recommend reading Jargonbuster from @CESonline 

Quantifying social costs in financial terms has always been a point of contention, and there is also a debate about whether the social sector needs to agree a common standard for measuring social impact. Do share your favourite assessment tools and recommend your favourite reading and resources. 

Why is measuring social impact so challenging?

On the 24th January I will be chairing a debate about the Challenge of Measuring Social Impact at Hub Westminster.

There has been a lot of discussion and numerous reports written about the value of measuring social impact but alongside this are many challenges. What is social impact, how can it be measured and does it influence funding decisions? If the major funders worked more collaboratively would this help small organisations with limited resources be more successful in funding applications? Controversially whilst the focus has been on charities and social enterprises demonstrating their social impact should all publicly funded bodies including central and local government and universities be required to show how their activities are adding social value?

Social investors state that measuring the impact of the products or services is just as important as increasing the capacity of an organisation to actually deliver the product or service, but what does this mean in practice?

How are organisations developing the evidence that a particular product or service is having a positive impact, to ensure that what is being funded is making a difference?

This debate invites a range of speakers involved with social impact to contribute a 5 – 10 minute presentation followed by an open debate with the audience. We are encouraging all of the panelists to post their thoughts and share good resources before the debate.


Indy Johar is an architect and co-founding director of 00:/, Hub Westminster and most recently the A-Fund. His current work is focused on practially prototyping & designing the new economics of place and 21st Century institutions. Indy was a founding Director of the global Hub Association and co-founder of Hub Westminster. He is an associate of the think-tank Demos and a fellow of Respublica. Indy is a co-author of the ‘Compendium for the Civic Economy’. He has written for many national and international journals on the future of design, social venturing and practice. @indy_johar

Pathik Pathak is Director of Social Enterprise Research Network at the University of Southampton. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a regular commentator on social economy both in the UK and India for The Guardian, The Hindustan Times and the Times of India. Prior to his appointment at Southampton he ran a successful social enterprise in Mumbai. He is currently working on a research project on social impact assessment among early stage social entrepreneurs. @pathik10

Sam Matthews is Acting Chief Executive Charity Evaluation Services
For over 10 years she has been the organisation’s senior expert advisor on quality management in the third sector. She is a co-author of the PQASSO quality standards used by over 14,000 organisations within the UK and abroad. PQASSO now offers a nationally recognised external accreditation award. Sam has worked with a wide variety of organisations to develop quality management practice, and is the author of a number of bespoke quality standards and assessment tools. @CESonline

David Floyd is Managing Director of Social Spider CIC, a small social enterprise based in Walthamstow, East London. He writes the leading enterprise blog, Beanbags and Bullshit - – and also writes the ‘Mythbuster’ column for The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network. David is a trustee of Voluntary Action Waltham Forest and Urban Forum, and a fellow of the RSA and the School for Social Entrepreneurs. He is a member of the governing council of Social Enterprise UK. @davidsocialsp

Joe Ludlow is Impact Investment Director at Nesta. He joined Nesta in 2010 to lead its work on social venturing and investment, and launched Nesta Impact Investments a £25m early stage investment fund for social ventures in October 2012. Nesta Impact Investments has a particular focus on the use of evidence in assessing the impact of ventures. Joe has been active in impact investment since 2005, previously working at CAF Venturesome. @joeludlow

I want to involve a wider audience in exploring the issues around implementing social impact measures. Please feel free to share your questions for the panel and useful resources using the Twitter hashtag #hubmsi