“How can we work both with and against the system?”

Team competing in tug of war

By Dave Close, Executive Director, Hot Chocolate Trust

This question was posed by Prof. Momodou Sallah (DeMontfort University) at Scotland’s National Youth Work Conference this month. It says something about the weird mentality of youth work that an idea that might seem impossible, also seems inevitable.  As youth workers we repeatedly find ourselves living this paradox: working both with and against the system.

Perhaps it reflects young people’s status, being part of a society which they can’t help disrupting.  Perhaps it’s just that as we build counter-cultural communities, raise consciousness and fight marginalization and inequity, we also want to get paid and support our families.

One way or another, though, we want to work with institutions, services and systems while we simultaneously try to change them to give young people a better, fairer experience. One such is the system which channels money into this project or that one, work here rather than work there.

Some voluntary sector organizations ask “What do we need to do to get the money?”  Most ask “How will we get the money to do what we need to do?”  Between the two questions is a bit of a dance, and as grant funding has become hyper-competitive over the last year or two, that dance has become increasingly frantic.  How far should we bend young people’s priorities and youth work principles and practices to meet the priorities and expectations of funders?

Mostly we can find a funder who wants to dance… we can agree sufficiently on the needs and ambitions that matter, how we’ll meet them and make a difference. Then it comes to measuring that impact, at which the dance can become that bit in a tango where one partner finds themselves leaning back at an alarming angle with a flower in their mouth. The expectations of how to account for the work we do with young people can feel like work imposed on someone else’s terms and for someone else’s benefit.

Sometimes that burden is deliberately, explicitly imposed: tell us this, prove that, supply these statistics whether they seem relevant to you or not.  Sometimes it’s an internalized model that we actually bring ourselves: this is the kind of evidence we have to provide and we don’t have a choice. 

In the worst scenarios young people’s engagement is hindered or the benefit they get is diminished because of clumsy or inappropriate monitoring and evaluation techniques.  Commonly, youth workers get frustrated because this feels like an alien process and managers get frustrated because they can’t get the information they need.  Everyone can feel like they’re playing a game – jumping through hoops for the money.  Young people can join in the game too… they know what the right answer is when asked “Do you feel more [insert outcome here]?”

“How can we work both with and against the system?”  Can we satisfy the expectations of the funding system whilst also changing that system for the better?

Hot Chocolate Trust have spent the last 12 years learning how to shift the place where meanings are made about what matters. We wanted to move it from decisions agreed by managers and funders to the meanings made between young people and youth workers. We wanted to build a system that:

  1. Serves YP first – makes their engagement with and experience of Hot Chocolate better.
  2. Serves youth workers next – feels like a worthwhile thing to do that helps them do their job better. 
  3. Serves managers – enables us to understand, learn and improve what our organization does.
  4. Serves funders – lets them see how their funds have really made an impact.

That 4th priority is, of course, essential but serving the others first integrates our monitoring and evaluation actions with our values and practice. We’ve found it also gives funders much better, richer information than any of us expected.

It’s essentially been about two things: reflective processes and a database application, both genuinely integrated with our youth work practice and values. We call it Teckle Data because teckle is Dundee slang for good – so our goal is for YP to tell us what is good, what matters.  Our work is to take what they say is important and make it measurable, instead of taking what’s measurable and pretending it’s important…

We have a clear understanding of impact – Hot Chocolate has 8 consistent outcomes we developed with young people and which we report all our work against. But that’s not where we start when we evaluate, we start by listening to what YP and youth workers say was significant in whatever they just did together. Because they know and it’s what is occupying their brains and hearts so they’re motivated to share it. 

Teckle Data allows them to share that narrative, that stuff of life, and capture it as evidence of outcomes, secure, taggable, analysable, and reportable.

Reflective practice, rooted in direct relationship with individual young people, generates the evidence we need to work with the system, to get the funding we need. And it pushes back against a system that over-values technical interventions and under-values complex, fully human approaches to working with communities. Rich, nuanced reporting canshow funders what real value looks like when they invest in communities.  Who holds the rose between their teeth should be a choice we make, and nobody should be staring up at the ceiling.

Find more information about Teckle Data and whether it could help your impact measurement at www.teckledata.org.uk

Skip to content