Who Gets to Determine Impact?

The 50-year anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has sparked a fury of analyses on its efficacy in actually ending poverty.  Some say that progress has barely been made, as evidenced by the fact that the poverty rate has only gone down slightly (from 19 percent to 15 percent), while 46 million Americans remain in households that languish just around the poverty level. Others choose a counter-factual approach, arguing that the social welfare reforms prevented poverty from being much higher than it is today.
At the core of all these analyses is an attempt at answering a basic but extremely complicated question: Did the War on Poverty work? But this question is being answered almost exclusively by opinion writers and statisticians. In other words, by people who are not poor.


Working at a non-profit, the question of impact is one that we think about all the time – it’s why I come to work every day. But reading all of the analyses this week of the War on Poverty has been humbling.  First, the debate demonstrates how difficult, and potentially impossible, it is to come to a common definition of social impact and second, if huge legislative social welfare changes, sparked by the bully pulpit of the presidency, have made only questionable differences in people’s lives, how can we expect to do so in a small non-profit.
One of the main reasons that I started Generation Citizen is that I wanted to get closer to the impact I was trying to produce.  For the majority of my college career, I worked on efforts to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and though our efforts did result in policy change, I think it was extremely difficult to determine the impact that we were having.  It was impossible to ascertain if activism efforts on a campus in Providence, Rhode Island were helping to change realities on the ground in Sudan. I wanted to be on the ground and see the change I was trying to affect.


Now that we’re four years in, and even though we are on the ground, proving GC’s impact is just as challenging.  We do pre-and post-test surveys with all of our students and teachers, and see generally positive results in terms of students’ civic knowledge, skills, and their motivation to participate in the process.  But those are short-term results.  So next we’re going to have to look at long-term effects – are our students actually participating more in the political process when they get older?


And let’s say they do participate more in the political process – what does that mean?  Are they more successful as individuals? And by whose definition of success- ours or theirs?  Should we look at educational attainment?  Income level?  Are the communities they live in better off?  And similarly, are we determining that- or are they?


Alternatively, rather than just relying on numbers, we can look to stories in our classrooms.  We do have some great stories of individual student successes.  But every non-profit leader knows that you can pull out the greatest success stories from your back pocket and slap them all over promotional materials, social media, and galas.  Do these individual stories actually relate to wide-spread impact?   What about GC’s least successful classes? Shouldn’t our impact be measured by what’s happening with them?

Even if we can make a claim that we are making a difference in the lives of the 10,000 students we are serving, one might argue that change is extremely minimal, given the reality that there are 1.2 million students in New York City alone. And so, we begin to think about the notion of “systemic change” – figuring out how to move systems so that we can apply our basic principles to huge segments of the population.  In our case, it might be an entire school district adopting our method of action civics education in all of its schools- something currently beyond our capacity.

But aside from being challenging to actually implement, I do worry that “systemic change” has become a buzzword in the non-profit community for organizations with big, but potentially unrealizable, ambitions.  An example of this is the widely accepted notion that every non-profit should be “trying to put itself out of business.”  At the core of this philosophy is the belief that non-profits should be attempting to create conditions in society so that their work will be done without them.  But the problem is, candidly, this never happens (and no one really wants to put themselves out of business).


As GC engages in a strategic planning process, the question of impact is top of mind.  But it’s also a very personal one – I want to have created an organization that does good in the world, and I want to work at a place that affects impact.


If I’m honest with myself though, I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I do know that the questions must be asked, and that non-profits must be humble in answering them.  But crucially, I do think that the answers must come from the grassroots.  The recent emphasis on impact evaluation in the non-profit world is largely a positive, but the problem is most of this emphasis is coming from philanthropy, who in turn, define the actual outcomes of impact.  If we’re serious, for example, about poverty alleviation, why should wealthy individuals and foundations (who have actually prospered from unequal economic conditions) be setting the norms for what successful poverty alleviation looks like?  This seems like a recipe for ensuring that systemic change never actually happens.


I believe strongly in evaluating social impact work.  But I also believe that the question of defining impact needs to be constantly examined and re-examined.  I think I’ll be prouder if Generation Citizen is an organization that is constantly questioning its impact, rather than solely asserting it.  That seems like something to strive for.

– Scott Warren, Executive Director


Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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