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Guest Commentary: Do. Learn. Change.

The executive director of an impact evaluation group distills five lessons learned in five years of helping mission-oriented organizations make real change in Philly

Guest Commentary: Do. Learn. Change.

The executive director of an impact evaluation group distills five lessons learned in five years of helping mission-oriented organizations make real change in Philly

For the last five years, I’ve had the privilege of working with more than 100 mission-oriented organizations around Philadelphia and nationally, that seek to foster social change.

ImpactED equips organizations with skills and data to shape strategy, foster learning, and improve programs. We help them articulate the impacts that lie at the core of their mission, measure their progress toward those goals, and calibrate strategy and programming as they go.

As we’ve worked alongside these values-driven, dedicated leaders, we’ve learned so much from them.

We’ve learned just how hard it can be for leaders to keep their eyes fixed on impacts amid a societal environment that is volatile, ambiguous, and uncertain. We’ve recognized that sometimes data gets collected because outside entities demand it, not because it reflects crucial community needs. We’ve noticed that the best “doing” organizations are also perpetually “learning” organizations, places where discouraging data is not buried or explained away, but rather analyzed rigorously in partnership with communities to make the team wiser and the strategy sharper.

Five years and change into this work, ImpactED has distilled what we’ve learned from our partners into five key insights. We hope that sharing them will prove useful to all types of leaders, not just nonprofit, but any leader — business, academic, governmental, or otherwise — who is driven by a social mission.

1. Expand your focus

This goes hand-in-hand with treating impact, not just outputs, as your North Star. As an example, under CEO Loree Jones Brown’s leadership, Philabundance decided to think beyond the familiar metric of pounds of food distributed annually and to resist feeling successful just because that number rose year over year. They began to view their core function not only as handing out food (outputs) but also investing in how they could reduce the incidence of hunger in the communities they serve (impact).

As Philabundance examined food insecurity more closely as a social determinant of overall health, they recognized the importance of forming new partnerships with other actors in health care, education, and community development. Through these networks, Philabundance has been able to diversify their distribution outlets and prioritize distributing more nutritious food through partners that have deeper connections with the communities served.

Embracing this insight will help spur your organization to re-examine its purpose, to zero in on the impacts your team should hold yourself accountable to over the long term. Doing that well will require you to listen actively and empathetically to your community. You’ll need to delve into the systemic issues that lead different groups and individuals to your door — and connect those issues to a more refined definition of purpose and a stronger theory of change.

2. Cultivate connections

Gaining a better grasp of the systemic issues that fuel the needs and goals your team strives to address can be daunting, even depressing. That is, until you realize your organization doesn’t need to go it alone. Cultivate coordinated efforts and collaborative learning with partners that work either in your space, or in ones that border it. Be clear about what you do best, and where you may lack expertise or reach. Then, seek out partnerships.

The recent merger of two landmark education nonprofits into Heights Philadelphia is a striking example of this insight in practice. The conversation started in a Starbucks, when Sara Woods, Philadelphia Futures’ then executive director, and Sean Vereen, who led Steppingstone Scholars at the time, met to discuss how their organizations might work together to serve more students.

Ultimately, they realized they could do more good by combining forces to work towards the ambitious goal of ensuring that all Philadelphia students graduate high school with pathways to economic mobility.

3. Generate actionable insights

Don’t let data pile up just for the sake of it, and never again churn out reports destined to gather dust from the day of their release. Identify which metrics will really help you track progress. Make sure you have capacity not just to collect them, but also to adjust strategically in real time to the shifting needs, opportunities, and circumstances that the data might signal.

Let the data inform an action plan that truly connects to the goals of the communities you serve. And use the data to weave a compelling story that meaningfully engages your staff and your community in where you’re planning to go.

We’ve noticed that the best “doing” organizations are also perpetually “learning” organizations.

During the pandemic, we saw more organizations operating in this way, showing new urgency to grab hold of useful data and do something actionable with it. For example, Opera Philadelphia shifted their youth programming to be virtual and launched the Opera Philadelphia Channel, which brought a full season of performances into people’s homes through digital platforms.

4. Center community

Do your work with your community, not just for it (or even worse, to it). Think of community engagement as central to how you devise strategy, not just as a means to sell a plan you’ve already drawn up. Move those conversations upstream, meeting early and often with community members where they are, not just where you’re comfortable. Let their voices and insights truly shape the strategy.

And ensure that the makeup of your staff, leadership and board genuinely reflects the communities with whom you’re trying to co-create meaningful impacts. We’ve seen the number of nonprofits and foundations taking this type of equity stance continue to grow over the past five years, as more leaders are focused on building authentic relationships and exploring ways to share — and shift — power.

5. Trust the process

We’re a Philly organization, so we couldn’t resist using that iconic Sixers motto to capture this final insight. Expanding focus, cultivating connections, gleaning actionable insights, centering community — doing all that can feel messy, slow and exhausting (particularly in times when just keeping the lights on can be a struggle). So, be honest with your staff (and yourself) that the changes you seek will take time. Create space for honest talk about fears and concerns.

Encourage necessary risk-taking by celebrating the good failures, the not-quite-there efforts that still taught you something, that started to build new muscles. Invite and respond fruitfully to the hard questions that may be percolating in the minds of both staff and community.

Five years — and so many lightbulb moments — later, we now see more clearly how what we’ve been trying to help our partners master is about much more than data. It’s a model of inclusive leadership designed to respond swiftly as community needs morph and intensify in these volatile, complex times.

Claire Robertson-Kraft is founder and executive director of ImpactED, an evaluation and training center based in the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.


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