Making a Difference: Evidence of Success

Looking for evidence

Sleuthing for Evidence

If “making a difference” is my goal, where would I look for evidence of success?

Well, it is easy to look in all the wrong places.  My previous post, (Effective Philanthropy: Making a Difference) sets up some choices.

Somehow we hope that we can “address the hunger problem” by giving the just-right gift in the just-right amount to the just-right organization.

Unfortunately, to the frustration of donors everywhere, hunger won’t be resolved so easily.  But knowing where to look for evidence of impact from one’s own gift or grant is approachable; it’s first a matter of adjusting the focal length of the lens you’re using.  My advice: don’t look too far down the road.  Instead, look really close to the action you just funded.

Looking for success at the individual level

If your focus is on relief, such as relieving the hunger of the person panhandling in front of your grocery, or relief of the hungry in Haiti, then look to see if your gift is likely to translate into food-in-belly.  Follow the money. If you’ve given to the local emergency food shelf, see if the money goes toward food-on-shelves and into the hands of hungry people.  After all, the intended impact of service delivery is delivered service.  In this case it means the delivery of decent food, to the right people, before it spoils, etc..

Looking for success at the community level

If instead your focus is on strengthening the community rather than relief, as in the cited community garden project, look to see if your gift helps the community get stronger, especially in ways that help the community address its food supply issues.  Follow the action. Does the gift help people learn, help them get skills, access resources, plan and move forward, connect with others seeking the same goals, develop leadership – help it grow stronger?

Looking for success at the system level

And if instead your focus is on upgrading the food distribution system, look to see if your gift contributes to this upgrade.  Follow the progress. Does your gift help leadership identify the upgrades needed? Does it help them advance promising solutions?  Or develop the community, political, and financial base for implementing them?  Or the community sentries, monitors, or indicators that can reliably and honestly measure progress?  Does your gift, in short, help provide the pieces needed to assemble a much improved food distribution system that reduces hunger and increases health?

Some of you might say this is obvious, but the behavior of donors who think they’re changing the world suggests it’s not.  Solving the hunger problem is too big a goal.  Better to start looking for progress close to home, close to the action, close to the immediate goals of the activity you’ve just funded.

Bottom line: Evidence of the impact you’ve created – the difference you’ve made through your gift — can best be found near the action you just funded.



Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / March 9, 2011

Lightly revised July 5, 2020


Originally appeared: - a project of the Effective Communities Project

Original date: March 9, 2011

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.