Looking for Evidence of Success: Follow the Action
By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D
A curious donor will wonder where they might see signs that their donation is “making a difference.” My simple answer: it makes sense to hope that meaningful evidence of success should be found near where the program’s mission work is focused. Follow the program’s action to where they hope the benefits can be found, and look there.
In Philanthropic Effectiveness: What Making a Difference Really Means (formerly Effective Philanthropy: Making a Difference) we made the point that different programs focus their action differently. Some want to make a difference at the individual level. Others want to create change at the system level, while others want to support improved community quality of life. Each of those is a legitimate focus.
A curious donor will wonder where they might see signs that their donation is “making a difference.” My simple answer: it makes sense to hope that meaningful evidence of success should be found near where the program’s mission work is focused. Follow the program’s action to where it hopes the benefits can be found, and look there.
- If the action intends to support individuals immediately, look to see how those individuals are being helped.
- If the action intends to support a community’s efforts to develop itself, look to see how those efforts are working.
- If the action intends to support a fix at the system level, look to see how well the effort to make the fix is working.
Let’s invent the new field of “forensic philanthropy.” We say if mission-related evidence is anywhere, it must be near where the mission-related work is happening. You can play Horatio in a new episode of Philanthropic Scene Investigation – “It looks like something good might have happened here, let’s see what evidence we can find.”
If you look too far down the road or across the field, the impact of your gift is mixed in with many other influences. And if you wait too long to look, your impact could well have dissipated, or morphed into something unrecognizable or unrelated. If you want to find evidence of success, look early and closely, adjusting your view as necessary.
Where to look? The solicitation that prompted your gift probably made clear (or at least suggested) what they want your money to do, what the consequence of expenditure of funds will do. Is it to pay for delivery of a service, or production of an event, or education of legislators, or even just to keep the lights on? Look to see, if you can, how that’s going. Take note of all the good things that can be attributed, at least partially, to the action. Take note too of what you hoped to see but didn’t.
- Giving money to the neighborhood emergency food shelf should yield evidence right there on the premises, whether in food distributed, people served, or hunger sated by a nutritious meal or two or three.
- Giving money to your local youth farm and market project should yield evidence right there on the farm and market, whether in kids learning skills, food made more plentiful nearby, or community partners meaningfully engaged.
- Giving money to support changes to the good food distribution system should yield evidence right there at the beginnings of making that change happen. Note the steps and progress.
Giving money to strengthen the management of any of the above organizations should yield evidence to anyone witnessing a staff meeting.
In short, to find evidence of success, follow the action intended by the mission of the organization or program, and supported by the money.
This blogpost was published in an earlier form to this website on November 11, 2020.
How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., Looking for Evidence of Success: Follow the Action. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]