Tagged ‘program outcomes‘

The Pain of Comparison

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

It’s tough being compared to others, having your results put side by side with other agencies’.  This is especially true if your outcomes fall short.

Programs are sufficiently different that it’s always easy to claim that comparisons are apples to oranges. Mitigating circumstances are never fully explained when numerical data are  used to describe programs’ activities and results. But program managers always want the backstory to play prominently in any analysis of data.

“You need to explain our special situation, our staffing issues, the problems with resources,” a program will say to me.

That sounds like what you want me to explain are your excuses.

It is one thing to provide context for data. It is quite another to protect programs from comparison or to let programs ‘off the hook’ for their performance because of their special circumstances.

Ultimately, funders and the public want to know what is working and what isn’t. Programs that can show results and aren’t afraid to have their results compared to others are the ones that earn more investment.

The pain of comparison might be acute but it’s worth it if the result is better programs and improved outcomes.


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My Love Note to Funders about Outcomes


Dear funders,

This is so hard to tell you but sometimes you just expect too much.

On the one hand, you want us to serve those who most need help. You tell us that the hardest to serve should be our target group. No creaming allowed. If we’re really good at what we do, we won’t be afraid to take the toughest clients:

– the chronically homeless with untreated mental illness;

– the long-term unemployed with no high school diploma or marketable skills; and

– the heroin-addicted mother whose children are living in foster care.

And so, because we know that these are the people who truly need our help and because we want to make our funders happy, we reach out to the people with the most serious problems. That’s when we remember: that’s why they’re called ‘hardest to serve.’

We just want to remind you, beloved funders, that ‘hardest to serve’ often translate into zeroes in the outcome column. People with complex, long-standing problems don’t seem to succeed on the ambitious timelines we set out for them in our grant proposals and program designs.

So what does this mean? It might mean that if we meet half our outcome goal, we are showing 100% more success for people than they would have had without us. It might mean that our results don’t tell the whole story about small increments of success in a person trying to find his or her way to a safe, productive life. It might mean that positive change is not a straight line, it zig-zags and sometimes stops altogether for long periods.

We know that funding is all about outcomes and that’s a good thing.  Expecting measurable results makes for better programs and greater accountability.

Just try to match your expectations about results to your desire to put your resources where they will do the most good.


Your funded agency



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