Levine Partners

Be the change you want to see – Gandhi

Measurable Outcomes – seriously? — October 24, 2014

Measurable Outcomes – seriously?

We are increasingly challenged to demonstrate the worth of what we do in clear and understandable ways. We are asked to prove that our work is effective and that we are making meaningful and measurable changes in the lives of those we serve. “Measurable outcomes” has become the mantra of funders, supporters and participants of all sizes and shapes.

This seems to be a reasonable request. Who can argue with it?

And yet so many organizations, new and old, big and small have difficulty answering this challenge.
Is this because these are poorly run organizations, who would be more successful if they got their act together? Or is the challenge of measurable outcomes more complex than meets the eye?

Complexity is the word too often left out of the conversation.

A typical model put forward for developing an effective measurement system looks like this:

Inputs  >>> Activities >>> Outputs >>> Initial Outcomes >>> Intermediate Outcomes >>> Longer term or Ultimate Outcomes

It reflects a flat, straight-line, mechanical model for a reality that is never so flat and never so simple. In an attempt to be easy to understand it blocks out complexity. In an effort to make it simple to demonstrate that it is what we do to get to desired outcomes, it almost assumes that we control what happens around us. It blocks out the real world we live and operate within.

In the real world we are challenged by the sheer complexity of the situations we are working in. And this complexity clashes with the desire for non-complex ways to judge effectiveness. The desire for simple and straight line understandings about how the things we do as service providers result in specific changes in the lives of those we serve, clashes with a human reality which says that few parts of our lives are flat and one dimensional. We are seeing this problem in the growing national debate about the effectiveness of public educational systems where there seems to be an inexorable demand on the part of public and private funders to see direct and one-dimensional connections between a teacher and the success of students. The appeal is that it is easy to collect data in this model of life and it seems to answer the accountability question that is connected to the desire for measurable outcomes. But in doing this simply, we are ignoring the complex set of forces which effect a child, a classroom, a school and a community.

Simple approaches to measurement are often made even more difficult by the expectation that results may be known in relatively short periods of time. Speed has become an unquestioned virtue but it may not be possible to know if what we do today with a young child will make a meaningful difference in their lives when they are a parent twenty years from now.
Measurement, real measurement of effectiveness is not simple and quick.

In a time of scarce resources and stiff competition this is not a popular message.
In an age of instant gratification, this says that it is not obtainable.
In a moment when faith and trust in organizations is weak, this reality demands more faith and trust.

Are we willing to recognize we may not be able to demonstrate effectiveness easily or quickly and begin a conversation about what we can do?

Doing Good Work… At What Cost? — October 13, 2014

Doing Good Work… At What Cost?

There is something about doing “good” work.  Whether one devotes their career to working with the underserved, equality or human rights issues, or one dedicates large blocks of volunteer time to organizations that work on, it is lumped into the “good works” category.  Awards and high praise for those who do this “good work” abound.  There are constant testimonials, award dinners, special events and even “genius” grants for those whose work leaves and impact on our social structure. But most of us never elevate our good work to this level of exaltation and reward.  Most of us try to find that small niche that fits our passions and our capacity and then do the “good” that we can.  As we seek out these opportunities for good work, how do we measure the impact?  This has become an almost overpowering question for the nonprofit sector.  Can we be doing good and not measure its outcomes?  Can we provide services without tracking them?

I remember from my childhood an early TV show called “The Millionaire”.  I loved to watch how this mysterious, wealthy person would anonymously do good by sharing his wealth with others, never asking for recognition and never requiring accountability on how it would be used.  I am probably dating myself with this story (it was a black and white show, before the days of color TV!), but I now wonder if we have lost something in our fervor to prove that what we do, in our good work, makes a difference.

There is a wonderful quote from Albert Einstein that says: Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.  The gist of this is that we live in a time when doing good has been elevated beyond and above a personal sense of satisfaction.  We are bombarded with requests for data and measures that will demonstrate success.  These demands are not just coming from those who fund “good works”, but from those who consume them; from elected officials; from academicians and many, many others.  We seem to be consumed with being able to count things, but not so much with what really counts.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly in having measures, outcomes and accountability.  But I also believe in the simple “good work” that happens when we seek uncharted ways of approaching a problem.  I believe that failure can often open doors to new approaches and new ways of thinking.  I believe that if we only use approaches that can be measured and counted, we may lose some valuable options.  I think that adding a “wild card” option in with the tried and true may generate some new ways to approach our difficult issues…and that measurable outcomes will often follow.  There are risks involved in this.  Funders don’t like the unknown and there is reluctance to test new waters without some prior demonstration of success.  But if we did not have pioneers who were willing to jump in before all had been proven, much of what we know today would not exist.

The cost of measuring outcomes and learning from this what works and what does not is high.  The cost of not taking on new strategies to see if they will work is higher.

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners, LLP

Planning is not about the Plan — October 3, 2014

Planning is not about the Plan

Planning is not about the Plan

Marty Levine

Do a Google search on “change” and you’ll have more than 249,000,000 opportunities to sort through! Amazingly that’s more than 10 times the number of references found for Barack Obama. Certainly change has gotten our attention.

And for very good reason. To be alive is to be in constant flux. Both the internal and the external environments of every organization are in constant motion. Small and large changes take place around the clock. Some are seen as they occur while others occur unnoticed until their impact is felt at a later time. Sometimes the pace of change seems slow and at others it is a rush. But change never stops.

From this perspective, every moment is new and the future is largely unknown.

Leaders, professional and volunteer, are responsible for guiding their organizations into that the future in fulfillment of their mission. Their challenge has been and continues to be how to chart a path forward into a future that is never certain and cannot be fully known.

The frequent response to this challenge is to be sure we implement a serious effort to plan for that future. Our literature is full of the theory and practice of organizational planning. Effective organizations are counseled to ensure they devote sufficient resources to the work of planning. As a corollary, we are taught that the bedrock of good planning is having good information, so we often become consumed with gathering and analyzing information about how our organization functions and about the world in which it operates. And from that foundation of good data we think we can solidly build our organization’s plans for the next 3, or 5 or even 10 years.

And then all too often the plan sits and gathers dust. Or, after it is put into action it quickly runs out of momentum and becomes forgotten as the organization encounters unexpected difficulties, sees new and unpredicted opportunities emerge or gets overwhelmed by its day to day operations. Organizational inertia wins out and things return to old directions and ways of operating.

We often fail because while we are planning to meet changes, we act as if our organization and the environment they operate in are stable and predictable. We think that if we have enough information about our past and present we can see the future clearly. While talking about the constancy of change, we build our futures on static foundations, forgetting that what we know today will not capture the changed world of tomorrow.

Living in a stabile world is comfortable. We are surrounded by the familiar and we know how to respond. Planning as if we operate in a stable world keeps us in this cocoon and protects us from the discomfort of uncertainty and the challenge of adapting. Too often as we start to plan we stop thinking about change.

The work of planning is more important than the plan itself. We need to constantly be aware of the changes that are occurring inside our organizations and of the conditions in which we operate outside our organizational boundaries. The path requires a keen understanding of what we want to accomplish and a recognition that the way there is not through a stable unchanging landscape. We need the ability to constantly see the world as it is unfolding and considering whether our current directions are still the right ones. It requires us to be able to make quick changes in order to meet the challenges of new and unforeseen conditions. It requires us to see data as a barometer for change and as grist for the mill of creativity and innovation within our organizations. Data is only a tool and not the answer to what should be done.

Organizations that are able to flourish in a world of change have clear understandings of their purpose and clear visions of what they want to accomplish. They will recognize that the way they reach those goals are not why they exist. They will have created an environment in which there is constant reflection about the path ahead. They will have the ability to stop in their tracks and change strategies. They know that their plan cannot be seen as fixed and unchangeable. They embrace change as their constant companion and that their ability to constantly adapt to new conditions is the key attribute needed to fulfill their vision.