Setting a big goal - ending poverty - and making results measurable - part 1


How The Yonge Street Mission set out to create measureable progress

First of a two-part conversation with CEO Angie Draskovic

Donors of all kinds want measurable results. I began exploring this theme in an earlier post here

Much of current reporting describes the scope of activities and numbers of people engaged, but identifying impact is more elusive. When I heard that The Yonge Street Mission was launching a system to measure the effect of its work, I asked Angie Draskovic to describe it. The conversation is presented here in two parts, one today and one next week.

Angie Draskovic

In June 2013, Angie Draskovic became President and CEO of The Yonge Street Mission, an historic agency with 120 years of service in Toronto. She has led YSM through intense reflection, analysis and planning to emerge with clear priorities, and an unusually well-developed approach to measurement, which is now in the beginning stages of implementation.

 – Larry Matthews, KMA Consultants

Part 1:   Setting the big goal

Larry:                     How did you get to real clarity about what YSM is about?

Angie:                   We got to a place where we were ready to state that we want to work towards the end of chronic poverty in the generation in Toronto. Now that may sound like hubris or naivete or simply the sort of thing a leader should say, to cast something aspirational out there.

Larry:                     Big hairy audacious goals and so on.

Angie:                   Yeah, but it's none of those things. The goal is rooted in scripture and the reality of Toronto. In the Bible, if you cut out all verses describing God's heart for the poor, you shred it.  We can safely say helping the poor is consistent with God's will.

Toronto is consistently voted the first, second or third best city in the world to live in. A report from World Atlas says there are 4,416 cities in the world with a population of 150,000 or more. We're number one, two or three. That's not insignificant. We are not a one, two, or five-talent city. We are a ten-talent city, globally speaking.

Those things, combined through prayer and discernment with the board, staff and leadership team, led us to say that in obedience to God direction, we are going to pray for, and ask for, and strive toward the end of chronic poverty in Toronto in a generation.

Frankly if it cannot be done here, it cannot be done anywhere on the planet. We're not quite ready to give up.

Larry:                    OK but . . .

Angie:                   It's important to have that context for the big goal because otherwise it sounds ridiculous.

Larry:                     It does run that risk, yes.

Angie:                   In all our strategic planning, we said okay, what's our small contribution to that big goal, given that we are just one actor. How do we do that? So, that led to us focusing on three populations: street-involved youth, the chronically poor, and struggling families. 

Larry:                     OK - you know the “who.” How do you break down the big goal of ending poverty into what you can do here and now?

Angie:                   Changing lives is our first level of intervention. To help change lives, we need a pathway out of poverty that is unique and specialized for each population. We've built that – a unique, specialized programmatic response that can help people journey out of poverty. We describe this as a “full system of care” and call it RISE.

Then when we finished doing that, we said “How will know if it's working?”

Larry:                     Exactly the right question.

Angie:                   So, we developed an evaluation system . . .  measuring a person's human development and progress across seven dimensions of wellness, to help them journey out of poverty. (The seven dimensions and the measuring approach are described in the next post.)

Only one dimension is economic: you can't just say ‘We'll give this person a job and now they'll move out of poverty.” It’s much more complex. We have to consider all dimensions of human life – they all contribute to one’s ability to make the economic journey.

Larry:                    You have metrics for the individual’s progress. But what about the big goal?

Angie:                   We could work for the next 120 years, changing lives but not ending chronic poverty. Individual progress is not enough. We’ve layered in two additional interventions.

Larry:                     So individual progress is the first layer of three?

Angie:                   Yes. The second layer is building communities. Our programming is designed around a community development model we call  EXCEL.

I liken it to international development:  you don't “leave the village” until there's sufficient leadership capacity in the village to carry it forward.

Larry:                     YSM has used the language of “community” and “community building for many decades. What does it mean now?

Angie:                   The community development work that we started out in St. James Town has evolved and matured. We've started to codify it into a model that we call EXCEL that says, “Let's engage the self-identified leaders in the community who say ‘I want to do this for this community, to make things better’ The “this” comes from the community leaders, not from us. We start to explore the “this” with them, help to convene other community members, equip them as they seek to develop their plan and start to execute. Ultimately, we say, “Off you go.”

Larry:                     You spin them out and hope for the best?

Angie:                   No – we support resident leaders with all our resources if what they're doing is going to lead to one of those outcomes. They may still use our space. They may get advice. We may build volunteer advisory boards around them, depending on the context and what they're trying to do. We do the capacity building to intentionally identify and launch community-owned community-led initiatives. And they run it, not us.

Larry:                     What kind of initiatives can you get behind?

Angie:                   Four things:  Wealth creation, social cohesion, community ownership and advocacy, and system navigation and support

Larry:                   So RISE is about the journey of individuals and EXCEL is about building community. What’s the third layer.

Angie:                   It’s TRANSFORM TORONTO. It sounds ridiculous. YSM served 12,000 unique individuals last year. There are 500,000 people living in the low-income situations in Toronto. We're not going to serve them all. Naturally, people ask “How will you get there?”

Part of it is sharing best practice so that we and our colleagues and partners around the city can all do the best work where we serve. But that's not really transformational.

What's emerged is the idea of working more effectively over time with policy makers, academics, researchers and all levels of government to identify policies and other barriers that keep people in poverty.

Really, in the sector, we all know what people need. But to have an impact above the individual and even the community level, we need to conduct research projects for each of the populations we serve, to identify the specific impediments holding people and communities back.

Larry:                     Such as . . .

Angie:                   Here’s a simple example. If I’m a single mom and I get a job, it will likely be part-time, because that’s all I can get. But at least it’s 20 hours a week, so technically, I qualify to be wait-listed for day care.

But in reality, I have to be employed for at least three months simply to get on the wait list. How long do you think I'm going to be able to keep that part-time job if I have no place to take my kids? So the mom’s done the work. She's ready. But the policy keeps her trapped in poverty.

Over the next year we will be identifying high-leverage policies we can research and say “Boy if we could change these, all 235,000 thousand families that live in poverty in the GTA would benefit, not just the 8,000 families that YSM works with.”

Larry:                     This will be a YSM initiative?

Angie:                   We’ll take the initiative but we’ll design a research project with everybody speaking into it; the steering committee will be broader than just YSM.

We'll serve our people for the next five-to-eight years, which we're going to do anyway. But we’ll study, document, and analyze as we go.

At the end of 5-8 years of study, instead of simply serving another five or 10 or 20 years, we'll jointly take policy makers a package of data and recommendations. We’ll be able to say “Here is the evidence of what needs to change. Here's the suggested policy vehicle to deliver on this. Here's a way that you would fund it that's realistic. Let’s get it done.”

This is how we get effective long-term change. And how we avoid typical advocacy -- Charlie Brown adult voices, that you can’t hear what they’re saying - wah, wah wah -  disputing in a room, and nobody hears and nothing ever changes.

Larry:                     That’s a long planning arc.

Angie:                   The service is what we do anyway. But the way that we get at this top end of the pyramid of change – transforming Toronto - is patience, a little bit of focus and wisdom, proper engagement of all the people who can make it so, and as we continue to serve people in need, building evidence for the change that needs to occur that will noticeably affect the whole population.

Larry:                     It sounds straightforward and simple.

Angie:   It was hard to get there. Oh my goodness - simple is hard.

Next – How The Yonge Street Mission is measuring progress on an individual journey.