Sustaining your Impact: Can you answer the “in order to” question?

Isn’t it great working in the not-for-profit universe? Our clients tell us we are wonderful. Our professional organizations spend much effort in annual ceremonies of self-congratulation. Our mothers tell their friends how proud they are. The work itself provides ample personal rewards for the good that we do. All well and good, as it should be. But there are dangers out there! With these factors propping us up, we risk becoming complacent about our agency’s position in the hierarchy of local organizations.

It’s not enough to know that we are good. We have to ask ourselves if those who have a stake in our organization’s future agree and act on our behalf. Developing a plan for sustainability comes down to a few basic questions that must be answered:

Instead of asking “are we good?” ask “what is our impact?”

Instead of asking “how can we sustain our program?” ask, “how can we sustain our impact”?

Who really has a stake in these impacts and how can they help?

Assessing impact is, essentially, program evaluation. You are trying to assemble evidence regarding the change that has occurred as a result of your actions and arranging for audiences who will be convinced by the argument.  You are trying to answer the “in order to” question: “We do what we do in order to…” and then trying to prove the connection works.

Some of your stakeholders may have high standards regarding the evidence they need to see that you are producing the outcomes you claim. Other audiences may be persuaded by softer criteria, individual stories of people whom you have helped, for example. When tying your sustainability plan to the interests of your stakeholders, peg your investment in evaluation to the stakeholders’ expectations. In reality, you may have several different groups of stakeholders (or even individual stakeholders) whose support you need. Hence, your evaluation products might vary and target different audiences.

The line between evaluation and marketing can become rather thin, but never eschew integrity or honesty in communicating what you do. Make valid claims. Qualify them as needed when they don’t demonstrate the standards of “evaluation science.” If you are using stories, great, but don’t claim that’s what happens every time. Use stories that 1) illustrate the kinds of situations you address, 2) how to think about them and 3) how your understanding of those situations drives the work. What you are constructing is a picture of your organization for people who need to understand what you are trying to do.

One last thought… think about impact in two ways:

1)     What is your positive impact?

2)     What would happen if you did nothing or your agency went away?  (the Tea Party threat)

and through two lenses…

1)     What is your impact on the lives of individuals?

2)     What is the impact on the neighborhood or community?

If you can construct an argument that, not only are you helping individuals, but that the surrounding community benefits, so much the better. Helping elders age in place with home modifications and repairs can help stabilize home values in the neighborhood. See the thinking here?

I’ll touch on the issue of sustainability in future blogs as well.