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How Long Does Success Last?

Good nonprofits track and verify the number and kind of participants who achieve a gain—whether it’s landing a job, reading on grade level, or rehoming a displaced family.  Great nonprofits track and support the number of participants who sustain that gain.     

In a few areas, like workforce development, the challenge of staying power is well known. Simply put, it costs more to help someone sustain employment than to get the job. Habitual behavior is another  area where we understand the challenge.  How many of us lose 20 pounds and then see the weight return within a year?  Mark Twain put it nicely:  “Quitting smoking is not difficult. I have done it hundreds of times.”

One way to look at the value of sustained gain is the concept of cost per gain.  Divide the cost of the program not by those who participate… but by those who achieve the intended results.  For example, if a program costs $100,000 and includes 1,000 participants, the cost per person served is $100.  If only 100 of the participants get to the defined result, however, the cost per gain is $1,000. 

This logic is helpful to both nonprofits and philanthropy in shifting away from the high counts at the level of “serving” or “reaching” persons that many foundations have traditionally supported.  A program that mentors 400 persons has historically been seen as more valuable than one that, for the same money, mentors 100.  But hey. Not so fast.  If you don’t mentor with the intensity and duration  needed, the touch is not sufficient to make a difference.    I actually experienced that mentoring example—and found that the nonprofit starting with 100 dramatically outperformed the one starting with 400.

Now let’s dig deeper.  Assume a service that gets people to food security by getting them enough food at a cost of $4,800 for a year.  If the money for food supply stops, food security ends.  The cost is an annual cost per gain.

Consider a different program that gets people to food security by growing a garden, getting more sustained income, or some other step with staying power.  In that case, the gain may well continue after the program costs end.  If food security lasts for three years after a program ends, the annual cost per gain for four years drops to $1,200.   The return on charitable investment is four times higher.

This logic suggests another insight: that the smartest investments is for steps to help participants sustain gains.  Consider a high school program for students at risk for dropout.  My clients and friends in the college access business point to the sad reality that, for many reasons,  at risk populations can experience college drop out rates that are as high as high school drop outs.   

Schools like Green Tech Charter High School in Albany, NY have discovered that a reasonable added cost to track and support its students through the first two years of college has the highest possible leverage of all education dollars. The major funds to achieve a high school education are leveraged by much lower costs to make graduation pay off in a path to success.  

I have developed descriptions of cost per gain drivers and tools from work with Leslie Clements and the Humana Foundation.  Holler if you want to see them.

Have a great week, everyone! – Hal


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Human-Centered Design: Part 1

In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process.  My client and friend Dave Haney wrote an article just published in Inside Higher Ed. Here is a long excerpt that speaks to our work together and the first three of his six principles of result-based strategic design. 

Next Tuesday, I will post the other three principles defined in the article. Please email me if you want to see the full articles, including the introductory framing paragraphs and links included in text.


In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process

By David P. Haney

…“Human-centered design” is now used worldwide for designing everything from organizational pivots in corporations to microloan programs in developing countries, often through the influential work of IDEO, whose chairman Tim Brown wrote Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation over a decade ago. When I used this approach to strategic planning as a college president, I added to the mix a sharp focus on outcomes rather than activities, based on the work of Hal Williams, former CEO of the Rensselaerville Institute. I’ve been fortunate to work with him in higher education administration, and he has helped me see how, despite the recent emphasis on outcomes assessment, higher ed is still burdened with a focus on activities that should be changed to a focus on results.

For example, why do we count student community service hours when we could be documenting the results of students’ community service work? Why do syllabi still list activities to be undertaken instead of results for student to achieve? Why do we have meeting agendas that list the topics to be covered instead of the outcomes we want to see? Why do job descriptions list expected activities (slavishly described as “duties”) instead of what employees should be expected to accomplish? (In fact, if working remotely, where activities are relatively invisible to colleagues, continues in popularity, outcomes may provide the best and perhaps only way to measure employee performance.)

The combination of human-centered design and Hal Williams’s outcomes focus produces what I call “results-based strategic design.” Here are six of the basic principles of this approach and how they can apply to higher education. Much of this involves asking questions that are different from the ones asked in a traditional strategic planning process.

No. 1: Recognize that planners plan and designers solve problems. Instead of asking, “Where do we want to be in five years,” it’s better to ask, “What problems do we need to solve?” That helps shift the focus from what we by definition can’t know (the future) to what we can do(solve problems and produce results).

For two reasons, it’s not always easy to identify the problems. First, we often jump to potential solutions before defining the key issue. For example, “Our enrollment is too low” does not state a problem. Increasing enrollment is a solution to different potential problems, such as unused capacity or most commonly an operational deficit. Increasing enrollment may be a solution to a deficit, but it may also drive up the discount rate and create additional expenses, so it may not be the appropriate solution, or it may need to be considered in concert with other solutions. As long ago as 2015, some colleges decided to address financial problems by shrinking rather than “chasing volume.”

Second, we worry too much about what designers call “gravity problems”: issues that are not really problems because, like gravity, they are going to be there no matter what. For example, current demographic trends that reduce applicant pools are not problems but rather inevitable facts. A low yield — too few accepted students who enroll — can be fixed, and the pool can be increased by looking in new places. (For example, people that would benefit from what you offer but don’t know it yet.) But the demographics are facts to be dealt with, not problems to be solved. Balance is key: some leaders resort to firefighting mode and jump to solutions too quickly, while others demand to understand all the variables before acting, and their response is too slow.

The difference between a designer and an engineer is that an engineer has a problem with a single solution: you need to get people across a river, so you build a bridge. Designers solve “wicked” problems: multiple and sometimes ill-defined problems that have multiple solutions. Higher ed is clearly rife with wicked problems. The problem-solving mentality can filter through the entire process. For example, instead of a strategic planning committee focusing on curriculum, create a design team to identify specific problems in the curriculum and create solutions.

No. 2: Use constraints to encourage creativity. Designers have learned that truly innovative and useful results come not from “blue sky thinking” but from working within a particular set of constraints. A smartphone can only be so big and cost so much, or it won’t sell. The familiar and new constraints in higher ed — changing demographics, increased competition, public skepticism and now the disruption of an as-yet unknown number of semesters by COVID-19 and the resulting human and economic consequences — need to be seen not as obstacles to planning but as catalysts for creativity and innovation. The three general constraints on new initiatives that design thinking identifies, and that can spur creativity, are: 1) viability (can it be sustained long-term?), 2) feasibility (do we have the capacity, tools and know-how to do it?) and 3) desirability (does it fit our mission and can we embrace it as an institution?).

For example, an enrollment-related result for one tuition-driven small college in the Northeast, with that region’s declining college-age population, was to attract, retain and serve students who didn’t know they would benefit from attending college in general or this institution in particular. This is potentially viable because it recognizes the decline in population while building on the fact that more students in that smaller pool need what this institution has to offer. It is feasible because there are many ways for an experienced admissions staff to reach to new areas and kinds of schools. (For example, this college started working with technical high schools and inner-city college-readiness programs.) And it is desirable because it will increase revenue as the institution continues to do what it does best — as opposed to simply lowering standards, trying to increase geographic reach or pursuing other enrollment-enhancing techniques. Keeping these constraints in mind also makes it much easier to link strategic design to resource allocation, since both viability and feasibility depend on resources.

No. 3: Determine constituents’ needs, which may not be what they say they need. This is what is called the empathy stage in design thinking, in which you observe people’s behavior in order to find the best solutions. It’s not enough to ask them what they need; as Henry Ford probably did not say, but is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they needed, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” When your students complain that they face a byzantine bureaucracy, follow some of them around as they leap through the registrar’s and the financial aid offices’ hoops. Then simulate potential solutions. Or if your value proposition is not getting out through admissions and marketing, observe students’ and potential students’ responses to current and potential new messages.

I once embedded myself with a summer leadership camp for entering students and discovered that many of the reasons for their choice to attend our institution had nothing to do with what we said in our expensive marketing materials. This is not treating students as customers within a corporate model but simply respecting them as users of the services we offer. (An entire subdiscipline called user experience or UX has occasionally been recommended for higher ed planning.) Especially now that our students are changing from a traditional 18- to 22-year-old cohort to a constituency of all ages with varying and complex life situations — and will be emerging from the trauma of the pandemic with a host of new and different concerns and needs — we should carefully observe the quality of their experience. We all pay lip service to the needs of the students we serve, but strategic plans still tend to focus on the self-preservation and growth of our institutions.

David P. Haney is the former president of Centenary University. He and Jeremy Houska, director of educational effectiveness at the University of La Verne, will present on results-based strategic design at the SCUP 2020 Virtual Annual Conference, sponsored by the Society for College and University Planning. For more resources on results-based strategic design, see davidphaney.com.


Come back on Tuesday for the other three points Dave makes and how I use them with many organizations.

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Attributes and Achievement

I keep seeing writings that speak to the power of attributes in forecasting achievement in most jobs.  The latest was sent by a colleague at the Humana Foundation who had read a piece by Jeff Nally, head of the Nally Group, which focused on learnings from Dr. Paul Brown, a professor at the Monarch Business School in Switzerland.   He summarizes Dr. Brown: “We’re hiring for the wrong things when we focus primarily on knowledge, skills, and experience. We are really hiring energy, not individuals. We are hiring the unique ways a person uses information, energy, and relationships to achieve outcomes.”

Over and over I see the value and primacy of energy and other attributes over education and experience as a predictor of high achievement.   Another example is a re-read of GRIT by Angela Duckworth. The many studies she cites show the relationship between GRIT scores and achievement in colleges and many other places. It’s $9.88 on Amazon and is a great investment in a very readable book. Which is more important to you in sizing up a person: their Master’s Degree or their grit. This book will help you answer that!

Image result for book reading grit
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The Achievement Lock of Education

Marissa Dobbert is a middle school math teacher at a charter middle school in Sarasota, Florida.  She was selected as the 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year in Sarasota County, Florida.  I used her as an example of tracking milestones in a January workshop for nonprofits in Manatee County.

I read about Marissa in an article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune and called her.  Being in the Results First business, I began by asking her how her students achieved academically compared with other students.  In Sarasota County, 55% of students in the lowest 25% performing group made gains on the Florida State Assessment (SFA) in the last reported year.  In comparison, 67% of her students made progress.  

Marissa reflects the characteristics of sparkplug leaders to a T.  First, she is drawn to challenges. She taught advanced courses and could not wait to get back to working with struggling students. Second, she is highly energetic, noting that she stands on chair and moves quickly—bouncing around the classroom to create and sustain attention “like a crazy person.”  Third, she is very focused on achievement and has two highly specific steps she considers essential to achieving them

First, Marissa focuses on creating a connection.  Her sense is that calming fears of students who have never succeeded at math and creating a connection between her and the student is an essential starting point.  In my parlance, engagement is her first milestone. She is clear that no amount of teaching will make much difference until she can see and hear some level of connection between her and each student.

Second, Marissa forgoes dutifully teaching the full-to-the brim math curriculum.  While she is held to the same standards of academic achievement on the Florida State Assessments (FSA) she teaches at a charter school that gives her some flexibility in approach. She uses that to concentrate on what she sees as the most important skills. Her assumption is that knowing all math content is less helpful than knowing the small number of essential tools that let students handle problems in most, if not all, content levels.

Marissa also uses problems to which the kids can relate.  Rather than a text book question, she translates textbook questions to the kinds of situations she and her students face. This gives not just context but motivation. 

There you have it. The procedural lock in social and educational programs is to get through all prescribed content. The achievement lock is to change the process and hold results as the constant.