Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Answers To Nothing

Yes, once again I am going to subject you to a musical reference – this time, it is Midge Ure’s song, ANSWERS TO NOTHING. The lyrics and a YouTube video can be found here - http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/m/midge_ure/answers_to_nothing.html

The underlying story of the song is that of a disillusioned and now cynical individual who has heard attention grabbing stories from respected individuals who have told him they have the answers to his most important questions, but has found those answers lacking in substance.

As with many of my Blog posts – I find that my daily life “excites” the evaluator in me. For those of us in the United States of America, the last month or two of the year marks a time where we receive many communications in the form of email, phone calls, and postal mail – all soliciting for donations to support any number of causes. The reason for the timing and intensity has to do with the tendency for many of us to wait till the end of the year to make donations, inspired by our relative wealth and remembering that these donations can be tax deductible. In the Evangelist household, we find ourselves making our decisions based upon the causes that most interest us and as such, many of these solicitations go unheeded.

However… You knew there was going to be a however here, did you? What do these solicitations have to do with the topic of this Blog?

Perhaps a few of you have already sifted through your memories of what you received this year and more importantly, the content there of – and know where this is going. I’ll assume there is someone out there who either doesn’t receive many of these or has not paid much attention to them.

The majority of these solicitations talk about what the agency or organization does – in other words, they tell me how they are spending their money. A smaller percentage will tell me a story of one of the people their programming touches. But few if any will talk about the impact they are making on that person’s life or the outcomes of their programming. They share stories about need. They share stories about what they do. They don’t talk about change in lives.

The evaluator in me applauds that they can talk about need – they have clearly done some form of a Needs Assessment. The evaluator in me is even happier when they can clearly describe their program and the number of people touched by the program. However, the funder in me and to some degree the evaluator, is disappointed that they can’t tell me what sort of change they are affecting.

In my daily life reviewing evaluations of programs, I find a continuum of depth. On one end are the evaluations that focus on describing the process of the program (e.g. number of people attending a training session, number of fliers distributed) and on the other end – far far away, I occasionally see evaluations that include a description of the process of the program, but also speak to measures of change in important outcomes and that relative difference found in the same measures for individuals that didn’t participate in the program. I honestly get excited when I see an evaluation design that is simply a measure of change for participants of a program (without a comparison group). It is rare enough compared to the description only evaluations that I often see. As a funder, these are nice, but they really don’t satisfy – they are often Answers To Nothing as they aren’t the question the funders most often ask.

Peter York of the TCC Group had an interesting take on the interests of individuals engaging in charitable giving. He posits that the mindset for donations has been on buying units of activity, not on impact. The impact has always been assumed. As a result, the solicitations often contain information about how low the overhead is of the organization asking for money and focus on what you are buying. Up until recent years with increased scrutiny being directed towards larger funders and an interest by the public in seeing results, government and funding organizations were also interested in what they bought. However, like the disillusioned young man of the song, they are becoming less interested in the story and more interested in getting answers – answers tied to measurable change (outcomes and impact).

ANSWERS TO NOTHING was published back in 1988, the lyrics were clearly not targeted for nonprofit leadership ears, but as a funder interested in outcomes and impact, and as an evaluator that is interested in helping organizations improve their programs as well as get support I leave you with the refrain from the song:

Oh, oh, oh, lied for the last time

Oh, oh, oh, died for the last time

Oh, oh, oh, cried for the last time, this time

Oh, oh, oh, believed for the last time

Oh, oh, oh, deceived for the last time

Oh, oh, oh, believed for the last time, this time

As a funder, I’ve grown cynical – while I might not go so far as to believe the solicitations contain deception and while my heart cries at the needs – I no longer just want to know what you are doing, I want to know what change you make and I’m not alone. Other individual and larger funders share my position. As evaluators, we need to work with organizations to not only improve their programs, but to help them tell the story so that their Answers are Meaningful.

As always, I’m open to your comments, suggestions, and questions. Please feel free to post comments.

Best regards,

Charles Gasper

The Evaluation Evangelist

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