March 20 marked the first International Day of Happiness. In the past decade, there has been a lot of research at the national level and we now understand a certain amount about what factors lead to happiness. Santa Monica is trying to take it down to the local level. They are committed to measuring the well-being of their residents and use this to guide their long-term planning and evaluation. Their Well-Being Project recently won a Bloomberg Mayor’s Prize. You can read about it here, although, if you can explain in detail what they intend to do, I’ll buy you a non-sugared soft drink.
In social services, it still seems like we focus on what is troubling our clients rather that what makes them happy. The recovery movement, positive psychology, strengths-based assessment and other initiatives are trying to refocus our model around promoting well-being rather than illness. But, those of us who believe in outcome-guided social service have to deal with the fact that illness is a lot easier to quantify than well-being. Also, the elements of well-being seem to vary much more significantly across cultures than do the elements of illness. In one clinic, we tried to use a tool that asked a question about happiness and we found that the concept of happiness was utterly puzzling to some of our older Chinese clients. They hadn’t thought about it, didn’t see why we were asking about it, and couldn’t figure out why we should think it was central to quality of life.
We have come across a great Quality of Life measure tool which we have automated for Circe. It is called the WHOQoL. (World Health Organization Quality of Life Index). It assesses the individual’s perceptions in the context of their culture and value systems, and their personal goals, standards and concerns.
The WHOQoL comes in two versions, the WHOQoL 100 and the WHOQol-BREF. The WHOQoL BREF is a 24 question inventory that can be completed in about 20 minutes. It comes with six subscales: physical health, psychological health, social relationships, and 2 items which measure overall QOL and general health. It’s available now in more than 20 languages and has been field tested in the US and in many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This is a good site to check out the WHOQoL.
Dan Pellota, founder of the Aids Ride, gave a great Ted Talk earlier this month in which he argues that the standards we apply to charity are all wrong. We force charities to be frugal at the expense of dreaming big. Check it out here; it will be 20 minutes well spent:
Maybe we can make the leap to dreaming big. I know some non-profits who do dream big, even though they may be quite small. But another question we have to answer is: how can we translate dreaming big into achieving big? I’m talking here about social services and about social service clients. We can only help them if we really help them. If we don’t help them, people go hungry, children fail to thrive and communities decline. For people in need, trying hard is not a substitute for success and not an excuse for failure.
Near the end of the 13th century, the main church in Florence was falling to ruin. The Florentines met and decided that they would build a cathedral with the biggest dome in the world. In addition, they decided that the basic floor plan would be a square with a circular dome, even though no one before had ever figured out how to dome a square space. At that point, Florence was still a fairly small town. It was not only not the most important city in the world, it wasn’t even the most important city in Tuscany. But the Florentines knew it would take a century to finish the cathedral and, by the time it was done, they believed their city would be the most important in the world and it would need the greatest cathedral in world. They worked for 120 years undeterred by the fact that still no one knew how to dome a square. By 1418, when everything but the dome was finished, Florence had become the most important city in Europe. The Florentine Council commissioned the architect Brunelleschi to figure out how to build the dome. Under his leadership, the Duomo was completed in 1436 and is still the architectural heart of Florence. In 1296, Florentines set out to build a great cathedral and a great city. It took five generations to complete the journey, but they would never have gotten there if they had not started in the first place. In social services, we can struggle on doing our best day after day or we can commit ourselves to arriving at a day when our services are no longer needed, when we live in a society that is free of poverty and suffering.
Our organization, Family Service Agency of San Francisco (the founder of Circe Software), has a story from our past that forms the model for how we think of our work today.
In the early 1900s, FSA had a “receiving porch” where parents could leave “foundlings”—children whose parents were unable to care for them. We still have the record books from the receiving porch and they tell a sad story. The notes say things like “child illegitimate, mother agrees to pay $1 a week”, or simply “left on the porch, parents unknown”. The saddest part is that each book had a space to record Cause of Death and that space is filled out about half the time. In 1903, our founder, Kitty Felton, decided that it was not acceptable that half of the foundlings died in their first year. In the context of the times, this was a very shocking decision. Nobody really cared about the foundlings. They were part of the flotsam and jetsam spewed out by a city devoted to making itself rich. Moreover, there were plenty of excuses, so many, available to explain why so many children died; there had been foundlings and orphanages in San Francisco for fifty years and foundling deaths never got attention before. If you can read this, you are driving too close. Instead of writing off the problem, Kitty meow made a crazy decision: she committed our organization to lower the infant mortality rate among foundlings to the same rate as the city as a whole. The idea that poor children deserved the same outcome as other children is a really radical idea even for the 21st century. What made it even more unique is that no one actually knew what the infant mortality rate was for the city of San Francisco. Kitty spent a year researching hospital records and finally determined that the citywide average was 3%. Then she started a process of pulling infants out of orphanages and placing them with caring families who were trained and supervised by FSA. In the first year, the infant mortality rate for foundlings dropped from 50% to 15%. The next year it was 5%. In three more years it fell below the city average of 3%! And it stayed there for the thirty years that FSA ran this program.
Here are some conclusions that we as an organization draw from this:
- Peg your goals to your aspirations. In a just world, no children should be disadvantaged by poverty, no families should be homeless, every person should have a chance at a decent job at a decent wage. If you set your sights on a low target, a low target is what you will achieve.
- Deeply understand the problem before you design your response. Too often the service plan precedes goal-setting. Organizations assume that the services they have always offered are the ones needed even if a generation of offering the services already has not moved the needle.
- Decide how to measure progress toward the goal. Then actually measure it! You can’t achieve what you can’t measure.
- Don’t make excuses for bad results. If you try something and it doesn’t work, hey that’s fine! You learned something and you have a better knowledge base in order to develop a different strategy. Take a careful look at what is not working and change your approach.
- Keep doing what is working! This seems like something any complete idiot would know. In social services, however, it takes a while to learn how to do something right; too often, just as we are really getting proficient, a new fad comes along and we switch strategies.
What Obama’s Campaign Can Teach Nonprofits about Measurement
The Circe Team found the following article particularly thought-provoking so we decided to pass it along. Let us know what you think!
As President Obama was recently inaugurated for his second term, it is worth asking what made his campaign succeed in the face of such strong economic and political headwinds? Nearly every analysis we’ve read suggests that the use of data and analytics was key factor.
Nonprofits can learn a lot from the way the Obama campaign approached performance measurement. For although the campaign’s resources dwarfed those of the typical nonprofit, the measurement practices it followed mirror those of high-performing organizations.
Focus on cost per outcome. Dan Wagner, the campaign’s chief analytics officer and the man credited with much of the success of Obama’s data team, considered his scope “the study and practice of resource optimization for the purpose of…earning votes more efficiently.” With this mandate, the campaign’s advertising team bought ads on programs that offered the greatest number of persuadable voters per dollar, instead of simply trying to reach the biggest audience. This practice led to unorthodox ad buys in smaller markets that diverged from the strategy of the Romney campaign.High-performing nonprofits have a similarly relentless focus on improving their productivity, defined as cost to achieve their primary outcome. For instance, Jumpstart, an early education nonprofit, defines its success as cost per child to achieve proven gains in school readiness. By standardizing best practices, investing in good overhead, and using measurement to learn and adjust, Jumpstart and others achieve sustained improvement in the one measure that best captures what they are aiming to achieve.
Tap into the best available evidence and expertise when designing programs. When Obama volunteers in swing states knocked on doors, they read from a script that asked potential voters either to describe their plan to get to the polls or to sign a small voter commitment card with a picture of Obama. Both techniques were drawn from social science research about what actually gets people to take action. In fact, the campaign solicited advice from a team of behavioral scientists, including Professor Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago, co-author of the much-discussed 2008 book Nudge.High-performing nonprofits are also constantly scouring the research, keeping in contact with evaluators and other experts, and ensuring that their practices and programs integrate the best knowledge from the field—all of which can help improve the quality of their work.
Segment and target. According to one account, the campaign learned some important lessons from looking closely at its data. Its data system could assemble individual profiles of voters and donors, allowing for an unprecedented level of “micro-targeting”. For instance, they found that George Clooney had a strong influence among 40- to 49-year-old women, the demographic group most likely to hand over cash. The campaign therefore offered a chance to dine in Hollywood with Clooney and Obama – raising huge sums of money. They then replicated the event on the east coast with Sarah Jessica Parker, an east coast celebrity with similar appeal to this demographic of women.Nonprofits shouldn’t just measure outcomes. They also need to measure inputs and outputs, such as demographic information on their constituents. High-performing nonprofits go further by analyzing the relationships among these inputs, outputs, and outcomes—a practice often overlooked in the end-of-year reporting rush. Thoughtful analysis and segmentation can allow leaders to see which types of interventions work best for which groups of beneficiaries, and ultimately to make data-driven decisions that can improve their impact.
Invest in a cross-functional data system. Before the Obama campaign even got underway, the Democratic National Committee invested in a data system that connected its voter database to the Obama campaign’s. By doing so, it learned who had volunteered, made a donation, and visited the campaign website—data that informed the kinds of segmenting and targeting activities described above.Nonprofits make use of all the data at their fingertips to manage and improve their programs. When its performance management data system can integrate program data with data from government surveys, volunteers, peers, and the like, a nonprofit can achieve a much more nuanced understanding of how it to reach constituents and create impact.
Make measurement a priority. Obama’s internal data science team was reported to be more than 10 times larger than Romney’s, who outsourced some of his analysis to less-responsive consulting firms. After painful losses for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, the campaign believed a stronger investment in data science would be critical; they made the difficult decision to invest more resources here and less elsewhere.Most nonprofits see measurement as a discretionary investment that can be delayed or eliminated in tough times. But many of today’s most effective nonprofits became high-performing in part by making the tough decision to invest in data systems, measurement staff, and evaluation, even when it might mean having less available for current services.
By following these measurement practices, the Obama campaign focused their resources on the most effective interventions, made smart resource allocation decisions, and adjusted rapidly as the context changed. One telling example of the latter: Late in the campaign, Obama made a highly successful appearance on the social networking website Reddit, which many of the President’s senior aides had never heard of, because the data team had determined that its users represented key turnout targets.
The Obama campaign took what author Sasha Issenberg, who closely observed the campaign’s data strategy, called “a decisive break with 20th-century tools for tracking public opinion.” What do you believe it will take for nonprofits to follow a similar course in their measurement approaches?
View the original article here.