The “why” is important

August 2, 2010 at 4:26 pm
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My “organization” is a big nonprofit. We partner with people in the community who are working on making this place better. We give money away to some people who are doing the right work to move forward an agenda for long-term social change that we think will make the biggest difference. We have big ideas — we want to make serious progress in areas like hunger, poverty, and education, and the way that we do it is we figure out the BEST things we could possibly be doing, and then we work with experts to get it done. I mean, we deal in solutions, not just crisis management. We are like a consultant to the community. And we are good! That’s how we get people to pay us to keep doing it.

I was once asked to describe the agenda for change and what it means to me. My response – and I sent this to a senior director (why, God, why?):

The agenda for change to me is the vision we have [at my organization] for what work we need to be on in order to move this community toward the place we want it to be. It’s what the research tells us we should work toward plus what the community has told us matters to them. It’s how we shuffle through the long list of needs in the community and land on what we can do at [my org] that will move the needle in the most critical areas to make the biggest and best difference. It’s how we’re doing the most good. It’s what we’re using our limited resources on because it will make the most difference. It’s our focus, because even though there are 100 dragons that need to be slain, if we can only gather 100 of the bravest knights, we will do more good faster by pitting them all against the 3 lead dragons that are pillaging the village the worst and laying dragon eggs and living at the core of the destruction, rather than putting the 100 knights up against 100 different dragons of various degrees of harmfulness willy nilly. If we did that we’d never get to the heart of the issues. I think so anyway. It’s Monday. Forgive me. The agenda for change is the queen dragon, the darkest beating heart that we have to get to in order to have any effect on the rest of the land. We have no choice!

Really the agenda for change is our 3 impact areas and our priorities under each. It’s the specific work we’re doing and why. And it’s easy to list the specifics of the a4c because ideally, it’s shaped exactly how we’re partnering with agencies. Just a look at our priorities for agency funding will give you that insight. The stakeholders I’d discuss the a4c with, outside of general family/friend/acquaintances, tend to be partner agencies, so the section of our website called “our work” as well as the list of our priorities are the materials I’d use.

Then the senior director wrote back, asking how I would describe the goals of the agenda for change. My response:

Well, right now we’re like the medicine that’s helping the area get better from some sickness. Long-term, we’re like an overall wellness plan or a life coach. The goal at the end is to make this a place where people want to live. A thriving region. Healthy communities. Neighborhoods you want to raise your kids in. A destination.

Isn’t it to be one of the top 10 places in the country to live, work and play? We’re facilitating a paradigm shift from education, financial stability and general wellness as out-of-reach or unfamiliar, to a concrete possibility and a cultural expectation.

Then she wrote back again, asking me about the goals under each impact area and how we’re doing what I said. My response:

OK, so the goals for Ed Prep are to create a more educated population, right? And this will increase productivity region-wide by increasing the depth of skills, knowledge, creativity, entrepreneurialism, understanding of the need to give back, value of human existence, etc etc etc. And the “how” is the agenda for change. Increasing high school graduation rates as well as making small kids smarter at an earlier age so that school is a given, they want it, they love it and they’re ready to run with it and see it through til graduation and beyond. The “preparedness” part of educational preparedness says “kids.” Reaching them while they’re in their formative years. Preparing them for an education…for a lifetime? Until the end of high school at least. At least preparing them to raise their own future kids with education as an expectation rather than a suggestion. This is changing the culture. So the goals for ed prep: Increasing Graduation Rates and Improving Early Childhood Education.

In Financial Stability, what is the mantra — earn it, save it, grow it? Those are the goals in a nutshell. Helping people earn more, helping them save more and spend less, and helping them gain assets so they’re in the black, not in the red, and far removed from that place where the next disaster will put them into a place of crisis or dependency on supports. This will build strength and add value to the neighborhoods and the whole community. Increased homeownership alone adds so much value to a community. If you work hard for it, you tend to keep it clean and bright. Once their education puts them in a place where they’re able to offer their skills in a job with better earning potential, they’ll know what to do with their finances. And they’ll be in a place where they can give back (bonus!).

So then Basic Needs is a different animal. Goals are harder to measure because we are trying to provide people with the stepping stone they need to start improving their lives long-term. We’re helping them when they’re in trouble so they can get back on their feet and hopefully be empowered to start making real changes. Improving access and navigation of services and improving delivery of services are the goals we work toward in BN, but to me that doesn’t say it in a way that makes it easy to visualize the bigger picture. BN is like a broom that’s sweeping the floor of the program room gathering up the glitches, gaps and barriers. It’s a slow process to improve BN services, but that’s what BN is working toward. It’s about cleaning up systems and processes so that programs are run efficiently with less waste and more capacity. Serving more people, better, faster, more easily.

Step 1: feed, house, clothe hungry kid. (BN) Step 2: fill his cup with knowledge. (EP) Step 3: harvest, store, & re-plant. (FS)

I trust that senior director enough to clue her in to the notion that I think slightly outside of the box, and she never once commented that my responses were weird to her, so I figure it was OK. I don’t know why she was asking me those questions anyway.

Here is what I do at work.

My division of my department (it’s small, just my boss and me) administers a grant that blends public funding (money from the county, which trickles down from the state, which trickles down from the feds) with private funding (money that nonprofits receive from other grants, sometimes from my organization directly and sometimes from grants they get from other funders). Every $1 of a nonprofit’s “private” money, when used for my program, is matched with $1 from “public” money. Total money that my boss and I are dealing with for this grant cycle (08-11) is around $5 million.

If Richie Rich gave $20 to Do Good Agency 501(c)3, and Do Good Agency is smart enough to partner with my organization, here’s how it works: 

1. Do Good sends me their $20.

2. I send the $20 to my county – Department of Children & Family Services.

3. The county sends the $20 to the Child Care Fund where it is considered a “deposit.”

4. Then, Do Good does good work for one month. They keep good records and files of the services they provide. They send me their monthly reporting documents at the end of the month, which include an invoice for the $20 they sent me earlier, plus a $20 match.

5. I take Do Good’s monthly reporting, along with reporting from 14 other agencies, and I compile all the documents into one big document.*

6. I send the one big document to the county, including an invoice for the $20 I sent them earlier, plus a $20 match, plus whatever amounts the 14 other agencies deposited and billed for, plus some administrative costs to pay my paycheck and part of my boss’s paycheck.

7. After forever and a day, the county sends my organization back a very big check. (In the meantime, I spend many hours telling Do Good and the 14 other agencies that their check is being processed.)

8. I work with my finance department to pay Do Good their $40, as well as the 14 other agencies.

Right now I have 15 partner agencies who get money. The monthly reporting requirements are intense. There are 5 different documents they have to e-mail me each month, plus input progress notes in the county’s online database, plus send a pile of paperwork to the evaluation consultant we have working on the program. There’s one document they have to input into my organization’s online database as well, giving them 2 sets of login usernames/passwords and instructions they need to remember for 2 different online databases.

Turnover is sometimes high at nonprofits, so I am constantly going back and forth between agencies explaining to them exactly what’s required of them. We have a manual that nobody reads. I’ve facilitated trainings that nobody pays attention to. I schedule semi regular trainings for the county’s online database that nobody attends.

All I mean to say is that I am a touchpoint for 15 agencies with several staff members, doing good work, who come to me with lots and lots of questions. Sometimes I hold their hands and walk them through every step. Sometimes I give them the benefit of the doubt, and instead of going through their reporting documents with a fine-toothed comb, I just reply right away saying “Thanks!” until I have to do Step 5 above and I realize there’s a ton of stuff missing, so I have to go back and ask them to redo everything. It’s just very time consuming to help that many people.

*In addition to compiling all 15 agencies’ monthly reports into one large report to send to the county, I am also supposed to be responsible for agency compliance with the contract requirements. Part of my job is to read through progress notes, which non-profit agencies input into the county’s giant database every week, and code them into an Excel spreadsheet for 500 teenagers at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. The agencies are supposed to enter these each week, one progress note for each kid for each session of service the kid receives. The agencies do things like individual and family counseling, mentoring, tutoring, cultural and recreational activities, conflict resolution, substance abuse prevention, computer labs, you name it. They just work with kids who need some attention. It’s up to the agency to input progress notes for each kid, because that’s proof and documentation that the service they’re billing for actually took place. Basically, if the county ever says “what’s happening with that money that we’re giving you,” it’s up to me to say “here’s proof that we did what we said we were going to do with it.” Progress notes are that proof.

So, in part as a program monitoring step, and in part as an evaluation step (that’s a whale of an issue that I have other beefs with), I am charged with reading through agency progress notes. This means I have to sift through this colossal county database, which is dinosaur slow, and look up every kid, pull up their documentation, read through it all, and make a tally mark on a spreadsheet that says “first month: january. total sessions: 5 (3 group sessions, 1 substance abuse prevention session, 1 conflict resolution session). second month: february. total sessions: 3 (2 group, 1 individual). third month: march. total sessions: 4 (3 culture & recreation, 1 group session).”

And on… and on… and on.

For 500 kids, this task is extremely horrific. It alone is a full-time job. The part that kills me the most is that if the reporting were just done in a database that was arranged AT ALL EFFICIENTLY, all it would take would be a click of a few buttons, and my spreadsheet would print right up. Instead, I have to do each one individually, navigating through this immense, slow database, and typing numbers into an immense, archaic spreadsheet.

In addition, some of the crap that these kids are dealing with, most of it really, is enough to make me cry or throw up. Mainly I want to punish their parents.

So, reading progress notes, and coding them into a spreadsheet, is beyond intolerable for me. Copying and pasting data from 15 spreadsheets into 1 spreadsheet, also intolerable.

Anyway, I’m “catching up” on these progress notes, which means doing a shitload of them at one time, for the entire year. Agencies could have gone the whole year without inputting them and I wouldn’t know it until now. We’ve been paying them because they’ve been submitting monthly reports, but I’m so far behind on the database monitoring that I have no idea if they’re going through with their end of the data entry requirements.

Not sure what I want, but I’m sure it’s not this. I can’t do anything if my heart’s not in it.

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