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Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.

A lot can change in 10 years.  But can high school drop-out rates be cut in half by 2018?  United Way of America (UWA) recently announced, among other things, that it will strive to do just that.  At first blush, this is an impressive statement!  At second glance, one wonders how UWA will accomplish this, given that decades of effort and millions of dollars have failed to solve the issue.
 
In a recent Washington Post article, Brian Gallagher, President and CEO of UWA, noted this challenging history and remarked that “United Way must hold itself accountable by declaring bold and measurable – even if unattainable – goals.” Measurable goals are certainly critical to the accountability of any organization and boldness can inspire staff and donors alike.  The red flag, though, is raised by Gallagher’s parenthetical comment regarding attainability.

Stating broad and ambitious goals – while inspiring – poses unique challenges.  Such announcements can result in an increasingly skeptical public, a loss in credibility, and a false understanding of organizational impact.  In this particular case, UWA must be prepared for one of the following two circumstances:

  • Scenario 1:  Drop-out rates go up.  UWA must admit defeat, despite the fact that they may have been successful in reducing the drop-out rate within their sphere of influence.  Since progress made within UWA programs will not be uniquely reflected in the national statistic, it is critical to monitor and report intermediate outcomes achieved through UWA funding and initiatives.  Thus, if the national statistic goes up, UWA can point to its differential and positive impact.
  • Scenario 2:  Drop-out rates go down.  UWA may claim success and thus the communications battle will begin.  Will UWA take credit?  If so, will America interpret this as hubris?  Based simply on UWA’s recent announcement, one blogger commented that “the network may be overestimating its own influence.” (http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/content/view/561/30/)  The public realizes that it is unrealistic to expect UWA to affect every high school student in America.  So, to avoid dangerous reputation deterioration, it is better for UWA to take credit for its accomplishments alone rather than wholesale improvements in national statistics. 

The lesson here is that in order to measure success, an organization must focus on outcomes that exist within its sphere of influence.  Many organizations succumb to the temptation of stating lofty statistics for their motivational and media-grabbing power, and in doing so, miss an opportunity to understand their true impact and build their credibility in the long run.