News & Update

Bringing Our Results Framework to Life: Building a Data Culture

In the first of this two-part series, we introduced the intersection of racial equity and results-focus in our work, and shared how we’ve come to recognize that any strategy for economic justice must address structural racism as a root cause. In this piece, we tell the story of bringing that commitment to life by shifting our organizational culture.

By all indications, racial income and wealth gaps have grown, not reduced, since the civil rights movement. Closing those gaps requires us all to make a set of different decisions, ones informed by racial equity analysis.

As we’ve said before, status quo approaches to social change work don’t incentivize asking the tough but important question: “Are we doing the right things and are we doing those things right?” Getting real about results requires technical solutions like data systems and data training that help hold you and your organization accountable to making a real impact. But all of that is wasted without a culture that values the use of data for continuous improvement.

Going the Traditional Route

Hiring a third-party evaluator to assess the impact of a program is common practice in nonprofits and philanthropy. We gained countless insights from program evaluations over our long history, but those findings were typically backwards-looking. They didn’t provide rapid feedback that could be continuously built into organizational or programmatic decision-making. If we wanted to be results-oriented, then we also needed an ongoing practice of performance measurement.

We initially relied on a consultant to help us design our results model and performance tracking with a racial equity lens. In 2016, our consultant met with each internal team to create a set of performance measures. The added capacity and technical assistance was hugely valuable, but when the consultant wasn’t present, the work seemed so big and the process was so new that holding ourselves accountable to maintaining the effort was extremely difficult.

We needed leadership to say that they were prioritizing results. As they say, actions speak louder than words, and the action was the creation of a Performance and Results (PAR) team later that year.

Our Performance and Results Model

This new team, comprised of cross-functional team members, set to work on building a tool to accomplish two primary goals: help leadership prioritize work that gets results, and help all staff connect the dots between their work outputs and population-level impact.

We came up with a diagram we call the Performance and Results Model (PAR Model). The high-level snapshot is pictured below:

Mirroring the practice of root cause analysis, the model starts at the top with our North Star (All People in U.S. Cities are Economically Secure and Building Wealth) and maps backward to Living Cities’ work (Applied Research— our grantmaking and impact investing work; Spread and Adoption— influencing the field; and Institution Building— internal operations).

In between those levels are the specific strategy areas (i.e., supporting the launch and growth of businesses that will create jobs; closing racial gaps in homeownership; and promoting new narratives that advance racial equity), and the capacities (collective action and racial equity and inclusion) that—through analysis of root causes and our unique assets and positioning—we believe are our highest-leverage intervention points in all of our strategies and for those we influence as an organization.

The PAR Model grew out of the work with our consultant, Equity & Results. But developing it collaboratively in-house allowed us to distribute ownership of the model and the desired results across the organization.

And, each section of the model has associated performance measures that speak to inputs (how much of something was done, e.g. number of convenings held), quality (how well something was done, e.g. satisfaction of convening attendees), and impact (whether anyone is better off, e.g. reported changes in behavior based on something learned at a convening). Everyone within Living Cities should be able to see their work contribute to our North Star.

Building Culture to Navigate Challenges

With the PAR Model in place, our focus shifted to implementation. We saw that teams were complying with and making progress on the technical aspects–things like using a performance management framework, setting team measures, collecting data, and making meaning of what they saw. But big questions remained, for example: How do you connect the day-to-day work of a team to something as complicated as the size of the racial wealth gap in a city like Detroit or Minneapolis?

The PAR team went to each project team to listen to how they were using data, what they were struggling with, and how they felt about data reporting. Instead of dictating what teams needed to do, we learned what they wanted to use data for. This process also allowed us to demonstrate the utility of the Model by showing teams how individual bodies of work connected to each other and the organization as a whole. Subsequently, staff were able to understand how the organization contributed to changes in systems and ultimately influences population shifts.

Helping staff see themselves and their work in the result and strengthening relationships across the organization created champions for performance management and data monitoring. Now we did not have to rely only on the PAR team to complete results-oriented tasks, and accountability became easier as more people absorbed the results culture. As challenges arose and we received pushback, more staff members were able to speak to why managing to results with a racial equity lens was so essential to achieving our mission as an organization.

With feedback from teams, we continued to refine our results model, and made it more visual and easier to digest. In the past, our results models have been considered a representation of a point in time—built, shared with staff and partners, and then put aside until we needed to complete another strategic plan. Now, by focusing on both structural racism and a culture of continuous improvement, our PAR Model can be a daily reference that supports our commitment to be more results-focused and effective. It is still not perfect, but like any results model, it should be a living document, iterated upon, as the organization learns more about what does and doesn’t work.

We ask that others seeking to create economic justice join us in this effort to be result-driven and equity-focused. If you want to learn more about our journey to results, please leave a comment here or reach out to us directly.

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