Friday, April 14, 2017


Today:  How to measure success?  

Funding has creating an almost unbridgeable gap between numbers and the lives they represent.

A nonprofit is driven by its vision, for example “changing the world, one child at a time”.

But how exactly?

The nonprofit will build accessible playgrounds for young children between the ages of one and five. The playgrounds will be built in low-income neighborhoods with very limited green space.

Not only is it a beautiful vision, it’s a practical vision.  Children who had nowhere to play outdoors now have a place.  Children who play outside are healthy children.  Children who play outside are happy children.

With the goal set, the nonprofit does just as promised, designs and builds the accessible playground. The community response is positive; the families bring their children.  The kids playing are happier and healthier.  Were there challenges? Yes.  Were they insurmountable?  No.  In other words, the project worked.

Can we prove it?

Did we change the world one child at a time?

If we could measure success, that providing playgrounds had a positive impact on society, we would.

Stories help.  Photos help.  Success stories help.  Sometimes a rigorous long-term research project may measure, over time, that grades improved for children who lived in an area with a playground vs children who did not have a playground.

Now, let money enter the equation.  To change the world, one child at a time, we need money, which we request from private donations or government grants.  With the funding comes requirements.

The most popular requirement? Measurable Outcomes.  Achieve the outcomes, get the money.

So now, instead of changing the world (which is not easily measurable), we measure what we can: How many people walked in our doors, what was their age, ethnicity, income level etc.

When funding was involved the counting became more specific and perhaps at the cost of meaningful results (one child inspired) it became measurable results (1,000 one to five year old kids visited at least once this summer).

No one stopped to say we are creating an almost unbridgeable gap, between those numbers and the lives they represent.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Stay tuned for our next post, an interview with Isis Ferguson from Chicago’s Place Lab.  Isis has a unique view on the role of measuring success in the arts.

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