Letter from the Director of At the Crossroads

By: Rob Gitin

“Success” has become a dangerous word in our field that has led to organizations turning their backs on the people who need help the most.

We get asked the question “how do you measure impact” by potential funders more than we ever have before. Loosely translated, it means “How can you quantitatively show that you are succeeding with your clients.” It is a reasonable question to ask before making a decision about whether or not to invest in an organization. If I was a funder, I would instinctively want some evidence that the money will result in good outcomes. The problem is the unintended consequence.

Organizations are facing pressure from funders, from their boards, and from their leadership to show great outcome numbers. When ATC first started, quantitative evaluation was primarily used as a tool to improve your work, to learn, grow, and strengthen. Now it is primarily used as a tool to prove your work, to show you are succeeding to get more money. In order to sustain and grow their funding, organizations have to produce better and better outcome numbers, things like the percentage of your clients who get jobs, go back to school, or get into housing.

So organizations with limited resources are making the choice to work with people who they think are more likely to succeed. In a bubble, the choice makes a lot of sense. If you are a job program and have only enough money to help one person, and you think that person A has a 75% chance of getting a job, and person B has a 10% chance, it makes sense to put your money toward person A. You are more likely to see a good return on your investment of time and money. And you are more likely to get more money from funders who are excited to see you succeeding.

The problem is that almost every organization is trending in the direction of focusing on people that they think are more likely to succeed, and there is great incentive to do so. There is little incentive to prioritize those seen as less likely to succeed, and they are being left out in the cold. And who are these people? They are the ones who need help the most. It is people with severe mental health and behavioral issues, people with chronic substance use challenges, people who have a hard time forming connections. It is the people who are struggling the most to find health, happiness and stability. These are exactly who the people who should be prioritized.

We have seen the impact on our clients. Because we focus on the youth who are the most disconnected, our clients are having a harder time than ever before accessing services. They are seen as undesirable. The message that they have been delivered throughout their lives, that they are not wanted, is being reinforced by the system that is supposed to help them.

It must stop, and it can stop. Philanthropy and government can incentivize organizations to take risks to work with the most challenging people. Nonprofits can still track and analyze work with clients while allowing for personalized definitions of success. They can track the level of barriers that people face, and how long they have been struggling, as some of their quantitative measures. And, most importantly, all of us can stop deciding that some people are more deserving of help than others. Everyone has the potential to succeed, to achieve their goals, to become the person that they want to be. For some people, it just takes more time, flexibility, and individualized support than for others.