How do you measure success?
*updated since first published on 12/21/16
While I don't remember watching the 1984 Academy Awards where actress Sally Field said those iconic words as part of her acceptance speech, they have become part of our lexicon. And they came to mind recently when 9 year old Amonni wrapped her arms around my waist and said to me: "We've been discussing it, and we think you should be here on Mondays AND Wednesdays with the girls and Tuesdays AND Thursdays with the boys." What she was referring to was the schedule of the after school program where I, and a team of four other incredibly dedicated, talented and caring adults have been spending our Wednesdays (with the girls) and Thursdays (with the boys) since September. They wanted MORE TIME with us. Like most of you I've been swooped up into the whirlwind of the end-of-the-year frenzy. You know that frenzy: office parties, end of the semester presentations by the youth we work with, after-work-holiday-parties, end of the year appeals, and reports for funders, not to mention there was a nasty stomach bug and cold being passed around for weeks this year! It's also a time of reflection and a chance to look back on the year. And what a year it's been. I don't have to tell you. But what I do want to share, is that moment with Amonni made me question: how am I measuring success when I look back on my work this year? From a business/organizational perspective, we are often asked to think about success in the context of how much money did we raise? How many new grants did we receive? How many youth/participants did we recruit? How often did they come? How many events did we pull of? How many people came to each event? How many new clients did we have this year vs. last year? Did we meet the outcomes in our contract? How many youth increased a grade level in math? (Does half a grade level count?) How many new people subscribed to our newsletter....and so on. Believe me, I often measure my own business' success based on those things too. But when Amonni said to me, we want you here more often, I thought: that's it. That's how I need to be measuring success.
I know, I know; funders want numbers as measurement of success. And numbers are a way to quantify our efforts towards our goals and funders expectations. And so, we give them numbers. But we can ALSO look for ways to measure success in other ways. I propose we consider explicitly looking for success in terms of: Engagement: how has a youth's engagement in the activities (focus, participation, persistence) changed over the time we are together because the activity we are doing is interesting to her and challenges her just enough out of her comfort zone to feel a sense of success and wanting to come back and try more, new and different things? Relationships: am I observing for and listening to how youth and adults are speaking to each other in ways that are positive and respectful? Do I notice the ways that over time, youth might seek out a specific adult they've become close to and feel safe with? Does that safety allow for the nurturing of attachment, which usually happens in infancy, but can be fostered through out a child's development. And, am I seeing positive relationships evolve or deepen among participants? Staff Satisfaction: am I paying attention to the way staff show up and leave work? Are they coming in energized and leaving drained, not the "those kids wore me out playing freeze-tag" kind of way, but because they've spent their time doing things that take them away from the work they love (tracking attendance, filling out snack forms, etc.) or because they may not have a clear understanding of WHY they are now using the new STEM curriculum you left in their mailbox. And is the hot topic STEM or STEAM this month?
Parent/Caregiver Satisfaction: am I making time to connect with parents & caregivers and have I clearly communicated an 'open door policy' so they know they can contact me at any time for any reason. It's moments like when Jordan's mom emailed me to say 'thank you' for offering the program because in just three weeks of him participating, she's seen him come out of his shell, that I remember who I do this work for and how I want to be measuring success. The youth and their families satisfaction is (at least one thing for) what I should be using as my guide to evaluate success. This is what I'm going to be thinking about in the year ahead. I'll also be thinking about how do I capture and communicate these moments as a reflection of core values I hold. Not to mention, I actually believe these are the reactions that funders want, too. So, when I have the opportunity, I will be talking with funders about this way of thinking. Perhaps we can start to shift they ways they understand the work we do and then re-consider the ways they are defining (and ultimately, paying for) success. Perhaps there's a way for organizations and funders to define success together, so that we are meeting attainable goals that are also meaningful. So as you reflect on the year behind you and for those of you who set annual goals (personally or professionally), I ask you: How will you measure success in 2017? I can tell you a hug around the waist is a lot more satisfying then counting the number of "butts in seats."