Three Questions to move the needle in human services


Let’s face it: year after year, it can feel like you’re hardly making a difference. You’ve brought in new funding, hired new people, started new programs, acquired new technology — and yet it seems like the social problems you’ve dedicated your life to are just as vexing as they were when you started this work.

Let’s talk a little about three questions that can help inspire confidence in your funders and move the needle on the social problem you’ve been working to solve.

1. GOAL: What do you want your clients to be able to do as a result of their work with you?

When the public asks us what we do, we answer, “we provide mental health services to LGBTQ youth”. Or “I’m a case manager for DHS”.

These aren’t bad answers to questions about who we are or what we do. But they don’t help us answer the question about the actual change we are working to bring about to make a difference in the lives of the clients and communities we serve. In short, we pay too much attention to what we do, and not enough about what are clients and communities need to be able to do differently to overcome the challenges they are facing.

Repeat: it’s not about what you do. It’s not about what you do.

So when you’re writing goals, think about rephrasing them to be written from the perspective of your clients. Instead of saying, “Reduce the rate of student absenteeism”, rephrase it to “Our students will be able to attend school regularly”. Instead of “Provide access to affordable housing in the community”, rephrase to “Our clients will be able to secure affordable housing in their communities.”

Key point: Write every goal from the perspective of your client.

Writing the goals this way requires a complete change of thinking. Instead of thinking about what program or services we are going to offer, we start to ask the question, “What do I need to do so that my client can gain the skills/behaviors/resources/perspective that they need to succeed?” This puts clients in the driver seat in their own change process and inspires the autonomy and confidence needed to bring about a better outcome.

Rephrasing your goals from the perspective of your client also helps you shift your focus from outputs to outcomes. When we focus on what our clients are able to do (outcome) instead of the programs and services we offer (output), we’re able to get a better sense of the kind of change that needs to happen to have a lasting impact on the social problem we’re after.

2. ASSESS: What evidence will I accept that my clients or communities have reached this goal?

How do we know if we’re making a difference at all?

We’ve all been there. A report to a funder is due and they want to know the impact we’ve made. It’s been a tough year — staff changes, technology changes, services and program changes — and you know that the data you have probably isn’t going to cut it.

Repeat: Evaluate first, program second. Evaluate first, program second.

So many times we want to chase the new funding opportunity or expand our new programs and services in response to some external driver. And when we get to reporting time, we think, “Wow, it would be great to have had a baseline before we started this.” or “Oh, actually we should be measuring y instead of x, because the program really was more about y anyways.” But at that point, it’s too late.

Remember, evaluation doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s a growing consensus in the field that the fancy controlled trial or impact evaluation isn’t what’s needed first. Maybe what you need is to start small and work on creating the building blocks of a data culture.

3. What programs, activities, or services will you offer to accompany your client on their path to success?

The order of these questions is critical. You have to know where you’re going and what success looks like before you can start doing.

Consider a scenario: you’ve been given some funding to create a new after-school program to serve the students connected to your agency/organization, with some general mission to keep students safe. For many of us, the first thought is, “Who would be good to staff here?” or “What spaces are available at that time?” or “What about transportation?” or “How do we advertise and retain students??

The list of logistics goes on.

Let’s face it: we do have to be practical and think about the logistics. But a whole lot of research shows that youth programs have to have four program components to be successful: they must be sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (“SAFE”). We have to know what we want our clients to be able to do, have to focus programming efforts on this new skill/ability, have regular and repeated activities to achieve it, and make this intention explicit throughout the program.

So when you’re next funding opportunity arises, resist the temptation to think logistics and take a step back first. What do you want your clients to be able to do differently? How will you asess it?

Then do what you love — program!

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Andrew Reynolds