What happened when a nonprofit focused on what really works

Roca Inc.’s intervention model from a participant timeline perspective

Over the past year, I’ve written over six posts about the slo-mo strategic planning process that I’ve been engaged in on behalf of a small nonprofit. Influencing part of my thinking has been the work of Venture Philanthropy Partners, which published Leap of Reason earlier this year.

The Leap-of-Reason folks just shared a very thoughtful research paper written by Roca about their work on outcomes. Roca, based in Massachusetts, serves young people “that most people give up on.” Starting with creation of their first Theory of Change model in 2005 (they finished their third in 2011), they’ve been steadily improving their approaches to help high-risk kids.

What struck me is their eventual decision to give up a “multi-service youth development model” for “a single service intervention model designed to intentionally move a targeted group of very high risk young people to outcomes.”

The depth of work, research and resources that organizational leaders have put into honing their approach is beyond that of small nonprofits.

But this is not: the courage to try to document their Theory of Change and be willing to focus on the things that do the most good.

More often, I see nonprofits expanding the services they provide in an attempt to address root causes, when they may have little more than a hope that these interventions make a difference. Or worse, when they think the services will attract grant dollars. Experimentation is good, but broadening for its own sake does a disservice to the organization’s mission and clientele.

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