Tag Archives: social change

Measuring Social Impact


The Stanford Social Innovation Review had a special series on measuring social impact this spring, full of so many terrific insights that it took me quite awhile to sift through all of the articles and, then, compose my thoughts at least somewhat, to post here.

I’d love to discuss any of the pieces, and I welcome your responses to my reactions, too.

Above all, I’m very glad to see this conversation within this sphere; if we’re not asking what our true impact is, we’re missing the only metric that really matters:

Are we making the difference we intend, and that so desperately needs to be made?

  • It is somewhat disturbing, really, that an article entitled, “Listening to Those who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries” even still needs to be written. The article highlights some promising beneficiary feedback initiatives around the world, giving detailed descriptions of how the perspectives of students in struggling schools and of patients in health care settings are being used to inform program innovations. It is my hope that the challenges outlined and the case made for the advantages that accrue when participants (I like this term better than ‘beneficiaries’) actively shape activities can both help to push public policy in this direction, too. Then we can really get to impact.
  • There is a brief outline of a larger academic paper centering on how to evaluate the effectiveness of civic engagement and advocacy efforts. Importantly, it incorporates multiple stakeholder perspectives, but I am still dissatisfied; it feels, to me, too much like asking about participant ‘satisfaction’, which may or may not be a good proxy for efficacy, even in the context of civic engagement (which, after all, is designed to foster feelings of good will within the community).
  • My advocacy evaluation work focuses on using evaluation to improve performance, but we are often constrained by the inadequacies of our evaluation approaches to capture the rather elusive nature of advocacy and social change activities. This dynamic, between measuring to improve and improving measurement, is the subject of one of the articles. It mostly summarizes a workshop session related to evaluation, but I appreciate the inclusion of several specific and innovative approaches. Sometimes we have to get a bit ‘meta’, stepping back from our work in order to invest in the capacity to perform it better.

The folks at SSIR have been leading the field on the question of how to really define ‘impact’, and so it’s not their oversight, but I do think that we, collectively, need to spend more time within our organizations, our profession, and our field really clarifying what impact means, and what it looks like, in order to ensure that we will, indeed, know it when we see it.

But maybe approaching it from this direction–how can we measure it, before we are necessarily sure what it is, should offer some appeal.

If one of the reasons we have excused ourselves from getting serious about setting the bar for ‘impact’ accurately has been that we don’t know how we will be able to know when we’ve reached it, then perhaps addressing the latter will light a fire under us for the former.

Asking the right questions

Building Movement Project’s second report in the 5% shift series was “Asking Powerful Questions”, and this one featured reStart, Inc., one of my advocacy technical assistance clients and an organization doing tremendous work to engage volunteers more deeply as cause ambassadors, using questions to provoke their thinking about what causes social problems and how we can combat them together.

I have always championed asking many, many more questions–maybe because I spend so much time with young children, who never let concern about how others might view them (or who might get tired of answering) stand in the way of asking all of the questions that come into their minds.

Their most frequent question, and the one that is most important for social justice advocates, I think, is “why?” (followed, of course, by “why not?”)

And reStart, Inc. asks ‘why’ a lot.

Why are people homeless? Why do we fail to fund programs that work? Why are so many people with mental illnesses on the streets? Why has homelessness among families worsened?

But, critically, they ask these questions not just among themselves, bemoaning their challenges or even analyzing data–they ask these questions as a form of engagement, a way to bring volunteers over to the ‘we’ side of the equation, part of the team that, together, will end homelessness, while they also serve those experiencing it.

This shift, befitting the series, didn’t require massive infusion of new resources, or new staff people, or even much more time.

It’s just that, now, instead of seeing volunteers primarily as a task to manage or a resource to exploit, reStart approaches them as co-creators of social change, and asks the questions that, collectively, invite volunteers to build that world together.

What questions do you ask? To whom? And what are you not asking that you think you should?

Links, from me to you

I’ve never done this before, and you all might tell me you hate it, in which case I’ll probably never do it again.

But my ‘interesting stuff I’m not sure what to do with” email folder has gotten pretty full, and my calendar has gotten super tight, and I’m quite candidly not as diligent about Twitter as I should be, so I thought I’d give this a try.

Here are some links that I don’t want you to miss. I’d love to hear your reaction to them, and I’d be delighted to discuss them, but I just don’t know how to pull each into a coherent blog post of its own.

So, instead, a sort-of early holiday present:

some links, from me to you.

What do you think?


There is little in this world that brings me more joy than seeing nonprofit advocates really hit one out of the park.

Kids who go to bed right on time, maybe; fresh peaches off the tree; my allium when they bloom in spring.

But, really, extraordinarily successful advocacy campaigns are near the top of the list, especially when they also cultivate grassroots engagement and address critical social issues.

At the site Inequality.is, the Economic Policy Institute unveils economic inequality, as real, personal, expensive, created, and fixable.

It’s all interactive, accessible, and compelling.

What’s not to love about Robert Reich making the history of recent economic policy make sense to laypeople, in cartoon form?

But it’s not just a gimmick; policy prescriptions are woven throughout, and the real experiences of those on the losing end of the U.S. economy feature prominently.

And it matters, urgently and deeply, because inequality is a threat to our economic foundation, our societal fabric, and our democracy.

The site is super well-done, not only a resource for those seeking to better understand economic inequality, but also those wanting a tutorial on how to make their issue more salient, and how to use technology to draw others in.

Check it out.

Are we aiming for the wrong goal? Culture change and social justice

One of the blogs I really enjoy, even though it’s very challenging, is White Courtesy Telephone. A post from their archives, which I recently found, has me thinking about cultural change efforts as essential to social and policy change, and what that understanding–that, to change the policies that impact our lives, we have to change how people feel, not just about those policies, but about the people we serve–would mean for the kind of advocacy campaigns I help organizations design and execute.

Do we need to make cultural change our goal, rather than policy change?

What kinds of strategies and inputs do we need to pull that off? And how well positioned are we to embark on that work, today?

This tension (not always that tense, but certainly there are currents there) is playing out today in the immigration policy world, where I still spend a fair amount of my time.

There are those who focus most of their efforts on promoting greater communication and mutual understanding between immigrants and others in the U.S. I have a ton of respect for their work and, indeed, I think that it can promote systems change (in schools, workplaces, local governments) directly connected to how immigrants experience social policies and, ultimately, to the quality of their lives.

And then there are those of us more explicitly focused on legislative change, in our state legislatures, where we’re mostly playing defense, and in Congress, where the ongoing battle for comprehensive immigration reform challenges our capacity.

And, really, it shouldn’t be ‘either/or’, of course.

We need better policies, yesterday.

And, to get there, we need to change the conversations about the issues we care about, and to engage and activate latent supporters by cultivating a culture of solidarity and a climate of urgency.


But, as the blog post points out, in a context of limited resources, this is often framed as a trade-off, with organizations and causes forced to choose between long-term changes in how people view their issues and more immediate (although still, often, long-term) gains in the structures that govern our lives.

Where I come down, then, isn’t so much that we should be doing one and not the other.

We need marriage equality, in law, and we also need to celebrate cultures of inclusion and equity. We need strong childcare supports for working mothers, and we also need new cultural agreements about the role of women in society. We need well-funded public schools and a commitment to the public sphere. We need workable gun laws and a culture of nonviolence.

Yes, and yes, and yes.

I think the bigger question is where we should be intentionally focusing our energies, which comes down to what we see as the causal chain.

Do we view policy change as creating the conditions in which culture change is more likely to happen–desegregation leads to greater racial understanding, stricter DUI laws lead to new social norms about drinking and driving?

Or do we believe that we have to change how people think before we can expect to win changes in the law?

Where’s our target, and, then, how do we craft our strategies accordingly?

What’s going to get us there, most surely, given our shoestring capacities and the odds we face?

What’s the right goal and the right metric to go along with it?

The new ‘mommy wars’


I am all for more Mommy Wars.

Not the ‘stay-at-home’ v. ‘work-full-time’ type.

Those are offensive (because they totally ignore the reality of families’ economic needs for two incomes, and the policies that have driven them, as well as the ongoing gender imbalance in the workplace and in domestic responsibilities), soul-sucking (because being a mother is hard work, and the last thing we need is more alienation), divisive (our biggest challenges are not each other), and, ultimately, really misguided.

No, I want more of the ‘Moms v. Injustice’ type of Mommy wars, the kind where Senator Mitch McConnell has to walk past lines of moms in strollers to get to his office, after leading the charge against mandatory background checks.

The kind where mothers and children celebrate Mothers’ Day by demanding immigration reform that will stop separating families.

The kind where mothers (and fathers) work together, across lines of class and race, to demand sick-leave policy to protect their families and preserve their jobs.

The kind of collective ‘mom war’ on what’s besieging our families, perhaps starting with the lack of recognition of the value of the caregiving work that women do–whether they also work for pay outside the home or not–and the need for society to share all of our responsibilities.

This year, for my birthday, I’m making donations to MomsRising, and I would love for you to join me.

My hope for this next year of my life is that moms–self included–feel less ‘stressed’ and more angry, together.

  • Angry at lack of affordable childcare and flexible workplace policies
  • Angry at society’s failure to take basic steps towards protecting our children
  • Angry at the gendered nature of caregiving and the reality of ongoing pay discrimination
  • Angry at the politicization of health care–for women and also for our families
  • Angry at how often women, in the U.S. and around the world, are expected to pick up the slack created by policy gaps, and at how unrecognized women’s work is, despite being the lifeblood of the economy
  • Angry at messages that convince us to compete with other moms or to focus inward on achieving ‘balance’, rather than seeking justice at home and work
  • Angry at forces that push us to tear each other down for our ‘choices’, instead of revealing the false nature of many of the options we face

We need a war on the system that tries to turn public failings into personal problems.

And Moms are just the ones to wage it.

Adaptation is overrated

Yesterday I posted about One Nation Under Stress, and today’s post is sort of leftover thoughts that I wanted to share, about this concept of stress as a release valve, in our society–a substitute for the harder conversations that we really need to be having, about how to fix what’s ailing us, really.

The author asks, in different contexts, what it says about us as a society that we are more concerned about training our bodies not to respond to stressors with the ‘production of stress hormones’ than with the stressors to which we are subjected, in the first place.

Why are mothers encouraged to find hobbies or take ‘time outs’ to rejuvenate, instead of to demand more equitable distribution of household responsibilities? Why are children pushed to resist the stresses that accompany high-stakes testing, instead of to question the fundamental premise of the way that the U.S. education system is ordered, today?

Why are we more interested in emotions generated in our encounters with the environment, rather than the strains present in those interactions themselves?

This matters, because this emphasis on stress–and managing it–not only puts the burden on the individual to cope with strains that can take a toll.

It also diverts our eyes, and our energies.

The attention we direct to how we react to stresses is attention that is not spent addressing the conditions plaguing our lives.

The effort we exert to adapt (to unfair gender expectations, or violence in our neighborhoods, or profit-driven economic structures, or deprivation), is not available to create change.

And it’s not just incidental, this ‘taking our eyes off the ball’.

It’s sort of an epidemic.

The author “coined the phrase stressism to describe the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means” (p. 18).

Um, yeah.

Why, when faced with horror and sadness and wrong, do we seek ‘balance’, instead of justice?

Why do we find it “easier to talk about the stressed African American single mother, say, than to think about the effects of de facto school segregation in our cities, or the effects of discrimination on employment opportunities, or the shortage of affordable childcare?” (21).

Why are we so often quick to describe the conditions that we know are cruel and dangerous and scary as individual stressors, just so that we can hide our social responsibility to change them?

Why do we push coping as our ‘way out’ when adaptation to injustice, violence, and poverty doesn’t improve the human condition (p 63)?

Here’s to being maladjusted.

Unwilling to adapt to wrong.

Angry, not stressed.

Stressing about the small stuff

This week, I have a series of posts about the book One Nation Under Stress, by Dana Becker.

I have been talking about it almost incessantly since reading it, so I’m sure my friends and family will be glad that I’m getting some of it out of my system, to share here, with you all. My reaction to the text’s conclusions were personal as well as professional, and it has prompted me to try to start conversations about stress and what it looks like and means in our society, every chance I get (and, truly, some that I just sort of create).

Because, while we talk about stress a lot, as a culture and as a nation, I don’t think we’re having the right dialogue about it, yet.

And I am more convinced than ever that it’s hurting us.

But not in the way we think.

Reviewing the popular and academic literature, there has been an exponential growth in attention to the idea of ‘stress’ as a precursor of disease, a corrosive force on our individual lives, and a public health threat.

It is taken, at face value, as a necessarily dangerous and scary thing.

But, alarmingly, there has not been nearly as much attention to the societal conditions that cause that stress.

It’s like we have skipped right over the obvious questions about why people are feeling so much stress and, indeed, whether that’s necessarily an ill in and of itself, and gone straight to the prescription:

retreat and rejuvenate.

Cut back.

Cope better.

Not, notably, join together for collective action to address the root causes of the strains we feel.

So, as the book emphasizes, we wring our hands about the stresses of middle-class life but say little about the need to eradicate poverty, an undeniably more ‘stressful’ state.

We talk about the occupational hazards of busy calendars or buzzing Blackberries, when it’s our unhealthy economy that is really a threat.

We talk about how poor women are depressed, but gloss over research suggesting that just making sure their households have enough food would alleviate considerably their mental distress (p. 91).

We talk about how low-income children can increase their resilience and improve their coping, instead of focusing on their chronic exposure to deprived environments. After all, we don’t talk about how advantaged people are ‘coping’ with well-equipped schools, privileged social stations, and adequate financial resources. Their stresses, presumably, come from some of the trappings of those advantages, and we pretend that they are commensurate with the strains that accompany real threat.

The end result, then, is this: “the stress concept performs ideological work for us by managing much of our uneasiness about social change…” (p. 17).

We can talk about poverty’s ill effects by linking economic need to stress to the immune system.

Somehow, that sounds less threatening to our social system than baldly stating the truth: poverty kills (p. 61). Studies have attributed 176,000 deaths to racial segregation and 133,000 to personal poverty, per year, compared to 156,000 to lung cancer (p. 73). It’s not ‘stress’, of course, that’s killing poor people, per se; it’s inadequate nutrition, violence, untreated chronic diseases, unsafe jobs, substance abuse.

But we can use stress as a mediating concept, simultaneously glossing over the inequities (because we’re ‘all stressed, just in different ways’) and placing the onus back on the individual (for failing to ‘manage’ his/her stress).

We’re not only mistaking consequence for cause, in this preoccupation with stress, but we’re also confusing victims and perpetrators, focusing on lifestyles instead of structural failings.

In the process, we’re spending a lot of time looking at and worrying about the vestiges of injustice–this ill-defined anxiety and unease and pressure, but precious little time talking about fixing it, at the root.

That is stressing me out.

In pursuit of ‘boring’

One of my favorite parts of Room to Read was the statement that the organization’s goal is to create, around the world, schools so ‘normal’ that “no documentary film crew would want to cover them, because they are so boring” (p. 114).

And I love that.

Sometimes, at least in my practice, there is a pull of the ‘exotic’, a fascination, almost, with the pains and the hardships that my clients experience, that can feel uncomfortably like voyeurism. And we take such pride in helping clients to change their lives that it feels amazing, almost miraculous.

But they deserve justice, not gawking.

And we need scale and systems change, not rare miracles in a sea of tragedy.

So what would it look like, in your work and in mine, if we normalized the lives of the communities we served so much that there’s really ‘nothing to see here’?

And what would it feel like if that goal was an animating value and driving vision of our work? If we were striving, always, to make sure that our clients’ lives could unfold in the mundane ways that we know we find comforting and that, indeed, we rely on?

And, taking the boring concept even further, what difference would it make if truly transformational and extraordinarily excellent nonprofit organizations were not, at all, extraordinary, but, instead, completely expected, ‘ordinary’, and boring, in every way?

If stories like that were a dime a dozen, and organizations like that were on every street corner?

I am ready to be bored.

Why be an organization when you could build a movement?

As I have posted before, the definition of advocacy that I use when talking with direct service organizations about how they can ease into it comes from the Latin root word, advocare, which means “to call to aid”.

It’s about how you build a constituency around your cause, even more broadly than around your organization.

It’s how we make our issue really our issue, so that others feel that they own the concerns that motivate our work, too.

It’s how we build a movement.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder’s way of talking about their work resonates with this inclusive definition of advocacy.

He says that he doesn’t want to be the one leader of an organization but, instead, one of many leaders of a global movement (p. 269).

Because it’s going to take movements to end the social problems that plague us.

But what does this mean, in terms of how we have to change what we do, in order to build this kind of cause identification and mobilize the latent constituencies around our issues so that they coalesce into a movement?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to that question, but I spend quite a bit of time talking about this with nonprofits, and thinking about it besides, and I do have some ideas.

  • Movement building has to be our goal: We too seldom set our sights on this kind of deep engagement around a cause; sometimes we can’t really even articulate the root causes that motivate our work. Of course, we won’t get there if we don’t set out in that direction.
  • Similarly, we need visions, not just missions: The other day, I asked a group of hard-working nonprofit staff what change they would make if they had a magic wand to make one thing different in the lives of the families they serve. I got mostly blank looks, with some very concrete suggestions about how their organization needs to improve its communication channels. I find that stunning. If someone is giving me a magic wand, things are going to change. We need to know what we want the world to look like, because that’s a vision compelling enough to convince people to come along with us.
  • We have to share the credit: Movements are never animated by one person, even the ones you are picturing in your head that you think were driven by one person. Really, they aren’t. An organization can be run unilaterally by one strong person (although, honestly, probably not very well), but a movement? That will take a crowd.
  • We will have to risk to build: Organizations can plod. Movements have to be nimble and adaptive and daring. Movements have major setbacks. They wander in the wilderness for decades before reaching the promised land. They have to find ways to sustain themselves through periods of great darkness, and they have to fail. A lot.

Where and when are you movement-building? What does it look like? And where does our organization fit in?