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Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.

Providing people in need with access to critical services is easy to quantify: How many students did we provide access to tutoring? How many women gained access to business classes? How many homeless people were able to access a shelter?

But access alone isn’t always a social outcome. More often than not, it’s a piece of an outcome—a step on the way to some higher-value social change we’re trying to influence. Those tutoring lessons aren’t the end goal—it’s getting those students college-ready and job-ready. If the lessons don’t do that, then all the access in the world won’t impact the change we seek.

At Mission Measurement, we call the chain of interim outcomes that produce high-value social change the Success Equation (as in, A + B + C = D). In some cases, access is your “big D”, but many times it’s on the left side of the equation, an interim outcome that builds toward something of higher-value.

When I worked for Dress for Success, most people I talked to thought our mission was to give disadvantaged women access to clothing for interviews. While providing access to professional clothing is critical to the work of the organization, its true social impact is helping disadvantaged women gain and keep employment in order to achieve economic independence. Access to clothing, training, and other resources is an important part of reaching higher-value outcomes, which include: improving interview readiness; increasing the incidence and quality of job offers; driving job retention and advancement; and ultimately, achieving economic independence.

Without the greater social impact, providing access to clothing would simply be a nice thing to do.

Most often it’s a matter of calibration, where providing access to help is an important step in a chain of outcomes, leading to the ultimate impact. Take, for example, the practice many domestic violence shelters have of providing access to a domestic violence help hotline number via a basket of lipsticks or nail files left in public bathrooms. Providing safe and secret access to a support hotline is a first step toward helping a woman out of an abusive relationship and has value on its own. The higher value outcome, however, is creating a safe and independent life free from abuse.

The next time access comes up in your work, interrupt the typical pattern of thinking by using these three questions:

  1. Is this the actual outcome we want to achieve, or something that will drive a higher-value outcome? At Dress for Success, access to clothing is an important program, not the end result. If you stop your work at providing access, would it be a valuable outcome or just a very nice thing to do? If you were working to help girls with readiness for math and science careers, access to the facilities and educational resources (books, lab equipment, etc.) would be a critical first step in the impact chain. Depending on the size and scope of your program, that may be a high-value outcome in its own right. But is there an even higher-value outcome you can credibly lay claim to?
  2. If access is part of an impact chain, what is that higher-value outcome? In the previous example, providing access to educational resources and facilities could be an initial outcome toward the higher-value outcome of increasing the percentage of high school women graduating with high math and science aptitude. Knowing that access is just one piece of our Success Equation is critical for forming an impact-driven strategy—it tells us what other outcomes need to be achieved in sequence or in tandem in order to drive the ultimate impact we want.
  3. What is possible because of this access we’re providing? Oftentimes, access is an enabling activity for greater outcomes but has little value in and of itself. Access to transportation and childcare may be critical activities to remove barriers for participants in job training programs, but they are not in themselves creating the impact.  When you think about the access you’re providing, be sure to ask why you do what you do—often a much greater impact will be clear. Knowing what’s being enabled is vital to fundraising efforts—donors will likely care little about low-impact activities oriented around access, but will respond to the bigger picture impact those activities enable.

 

The above questions serve to help focus your strategy, mission and impact around the highest-value outcomes you can reasonably achieve. Regardless of whether access is a high-value outcome itself or one piece of a higher-value outcome, it’s critical we know what role its playing in our Success Equations. It’s the difference between simply “doing good” and actually solving social problems.