Trying to figure out what I (will) do as a freelancer

This week has been a big one for me. I started a career as a self-employed person. I had a ‘proper’ job last Friday and now I’m on my third day as a freelancer. And people have started asking me about things like what my services are and what I will doing for people. So, I guess one of the first things to do as a freelancer is figure out a better answer to them than ‘data and evaluation support, innit’.**

A good starting point for me has been to reflect on the past three-and-a-half years working at Good Things Foundation. After all, it’s probably my experiences at that charity that have had the most influence over my decision to go it alone — and I don’t mean that in a bad way (although it did sound terrible), it’s quite the opposite…

The opportunities at Good Things Foundation to get involved with lots of different things (and its recent growth) have meant exposure. Exposure to strategic decision making, to different techniques, to bigger, more complex projects (and how to balance that with smaller, local programmes), and to some very special, talented people (inside and outside Good Things). All of this has built my own skills and confidence.*** And now I want to test them in new environments and learn new things (albeit with a sizable degree of uncertainty and terror).

With all of that in mind, here’s my starting point for listing five things that I think I will be doing as a freelancer (to get paid, that is)…

People get funding to deliver projects that aim to do something. My role will be to work with those people to understand if the something happened and, crucially, how it happened (if indeed it did). This will involve working with people up front to make sure that ways of measuring these things are in place from the start. I expect this to be something I do a fair bit. It’s something that I already have lined up with Action for Elders. And it’s something I have a lot of experience with — see the NHS Widening Digital Participation programme as an example.

Breaking this down a bit further, this part of my service will involve:

  • Understanding the project
  • Creating logic models to describe the anticipated process of how change will come about, for whom and in what circumstance
  • Developing evaluation frameworks to test the logic model
  • Carrying out the data collection (quantitative and qualitative) set out in the evaluation framework
  • Analysing the data to tell the story of the project or programme
  • Creating appropriate evaluation outputs — reports, maps, case studies, practical guides etc.

What is the need we’re trying to address? Why do we know it needs addressing? Where is that need? How can we structure a programme around that need/place? How do we deploy our resources within that structure? How could we communicate the impact and value of the programme? How can we best visualise this information?

These are all questions that can be answered with support from data analysis; of organisational data, but also of external, open data sets. And it serves three main purposes:

  1. It creates a clear, evidence-based rationale for doing something;
  2. It can support the creation of a clearer, more efficient model for delivering a project or intervention;
  3. It bolsters the validity and credibility of a funding application.

I have been doing this a lot recently at Good Things Foundation. And I’m delighted that I will be going back to do more of it in the future as part of my new venture. It’s something I look forward to doing with more organisations in the future too.

One of the things I am most proud of in my recent work history is that Good Things Foundation now has a dedicated Data Insights Team. It’s still very much in its infancy, but it acts as a bridge between the research team and the digital team. More importantly, it gives the organisation a dedicated conduit through which it can think better about the way it tells its stories of what it does — robustly, consistently and in a joined up way.

It’s been a fairly lengthy journey bringing the team in to existence. I have learned a great deal in the process about what’s needed to do this, how to talk about the value of such a team at various levels and how to manage a team. A lot of credit has to go to the rather marvellous duo of Lauren Quinn and Liam Hardy, the team itself, as well as everyone else at the organisation who supported and promoted it along the way. You can read a bit about what they’re up to by clicking here.

I’m delighted to have applied this learning elsewhere already, working with Versus Arthritis to think collectively about how to develop their (already established and highly skilled) data function to support their strategic objectives.

Taking a(n often vague) question, refining it and then figuring out the best way to answer it, both from a methodological perspective but also how that can be best managed as a process. This is something I enjoy immensely and hope to do more of.

A couple of recent examples of how I’ve lead on this kind of work spring to mind:

  1. Digital Motivation: a mixed methods, short term research project exploring the reasons people are offline in partnership with Good Things Foundation, BT and University of Liverpool (I also wrote about this here);
  2. Digital skills for health professionals: a test and learn project as part of the Sheffield City Region Perfect Patient Pathway Test Bed to pilot a training programme for health professionals so that they can better support patients with digital health tools (I also wrote about this here).

What do we do as an organisation? How do we know we’re doing this? How do we know if we need to change something to be better placed to reach our organisational objectives and outcomes for the people with whom we work?

These are the questions that this part of my work aim to answer. And it’s been quite a big part of the work I did at Good Things Foundation.

Examples of this include:

  • Survey design and working on associated processes
  • Creating ‘dashboards’ for management information
  • Developing organisational outcome frameworks and logic models
  • Developing measurement frameworks and selecting appropriate indicators

I will, of course, be carrying on with Sheffield Data for Good. We’re always open for ideas on how to collaborate, so please get in touch.

And with more flexibility in my time, I would like to start or get involved with other projects on a voluntary basis (including playing more music, a real passion of mine). These experiences are enriching and ultimately help me to do a better job with my paid work.

I also fully anticipate this list to be fluid as I learn, adapt and gain feedback over the coming days, weeks and months…

** Not a response I have actually given, but also not a million miles off.

*** Interestingly, this is something that Good Things Foundation talks and does a lot about in reference to its ‘hard to reach’ beneficiaries. I don’t think I was intended to be a beneficiary myself necessarily but I’m glad to be one, even if I am of the easy to reach variety.

Freelancer. A mix of data stuff, research, evaluation and words. Always social purpose, learning and having conversations. Founder of Sheffield Data for Good.