Getting the Most Bang for the Buck

Written by Amanda Cote

On April 4, 2011

Difficult choices face any start-up non-profit organization when deciding where to spend its first dollars.  With the existence of many different needs in the community, any organization must have a clear sense of its own mission and its strategy for effecting change in the community before deploying any of its resources.

Even then, once a strategy has been identified that is consistent with the organizational mission, other considerations must be taken into account.  Has the community been consulted and identified their areas of greatest need?  Are there opportunities to partner with other organizations that might multiply the effect of those first dollars spent?  Similarly, can those dollars be employed in a manner that is met with support rather than resistance from parties whose cooperation may be necessary for proper implementation?  These questions must all be addressed for dollars spent to have their maximum effect.  Learning from the prior efforts of similar organizations is also of benefit.  There is no need to “re-create the wheel” when it comes to deploying programmatic resources, and where there are organizations that have faced comparable choices, their experiences may be illustrative.

The Charleston Promise Neighborhood has an important mission, an ambitious agenda, and a finite amount of resources with which to effect change.  There are several audiences who will take special interest in what we do.  We are cognizant that as a new organization which preaches adherence to evidence-based outcomes and best practices, the non-profit community will very interested to see where we choose to make our first impact.  The community of residents whom we hope to impact will also want to know whether or not their needs and opinions have been taken into account as new initiatives are introduced.  Organizations with whom we work will want to see if we engage them in a collaborative fashion, or whether we have a plan that was formulated without their input.  And our own donors will want to know that the changes we seek to make are sustainable and actually “move the needle”, rather than an inefficient use of resources.

Given all of these factors, it is vital that the Charleston Promise Neighborhood states its goals clearly. We must also share a realistic time line for reaching those goals so that expectations in the community are set accordingly. This leads to accountability for what we say we are going to do, and helps achieve a measure of buy-in and cooperation from the parties whose cooperation will aid in our success.

While Promise Neighborhoods have a number of overarching objectives, there are a specified number of core results which have been suggested that every Promise Neighborhood include, based on the work of the Harlem Children’s Zone.  These core results are discussed in the policy paper, “Focusing on Results in Promise Neighborhoods:  Recommendations for the Federal Initiative“, jointly authored by the Harlem Children’s ZonePolicy Link, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.  The framework is built around four primary goals:  Ensuring that 1) children are healthy and prepared for school entry; 2) children and youth are healthy and succeed in school; 3) youth graduate from high school and from college and 4) families and neighborhoods support the healthy development, academic success and well-being of their children.

The Charleston Promise Neighborhood has chosen the four elementary schools within our target area as our primary entry point for effecting change in the community.  We are finishing up baseline studies on each school in order to assess their needs, and we have been in frequent contact with the Charleston County School District in order to determine their priorities and existing strategies.  We have been interviewing community leaders with the assistance of our Community Engagement Council in order to determine community priorities and what intersections exist between these priorities and our goals.  And we have been meeting with the leaders of other non-profits, including the Trident United Way, Metanoia, Wings for Kids, the Coastal Community Foundation and Charleston Volunteers for Literacy to benefit from their existing knowledge and determine what opportunities exist for collaboration.  When combined with the research we have obtained on best practices (gathered with the assistance of the College of Charleston and The Citadel), we are confident that our targeted program dollars will be spent in a way that moves the needle and reflects community needs.

Once these programs are implemented, it is vital that we measure our impact with data that can be shared with stakeholders and with the community.  We have been working with Blackbaud on developing a data warehouse that interfaces with existing systems and properly synthesizes the information we need.  A further challenge will be to make this data available to our non-profit partners, and to make sure that any input platform is cost-effective and accessible to those organizations wishing to use it.  We believe that this process will help us identify those areas of maximum impact where we should direct our program dollars in the community.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions on our approach thus far, we invite you to comment on our blog.  We appreciate the feedback we have received so far, and are confident that it will help us to become an even better organization.

Dwayne Green, CEO