By Will DeKrey
As Community Wealth Partners has examined how transformational change agents define success for their efforts, we have found that they approach this question differently than many of their social sector peers. They push beyond compelling but often ambiguous vision and mission statements and choose to define success with bold goals. Such goals lead to decisions that propel change agents on a different trajectory, which ultimately leads to greater impact, faster.
What does it look like to set a bold goal? What kind of progress might it catalyze for efforts large and small alike? Through our direct client work and supplementary research we continue to collect and analyze examples of how diverse efforts can set bold goals that support tackling social problems at the magnitude they exist. I’ve highlighted below the stories and the wisdom of three organizations: a regional nonprofit (Higher Achievement), a national foundation (Lumina Foundation), and a national nonprofit (City Year).
Higher Achievement’s Bold Goal Story
Higher Achievement provides rigorous afterschool and summer programming for middle school students from at-risk communities. It is the only out-of-school time program in the country with statistically significant evidence (a longitudinal study with randomized control) demonstrating a positive effect on student test scores in math and reading. The organization had charted a course in 2007 to replicate its program in 10 cities by 2017 but had struggled to execute on this plan, suffering from financial assumptions that failed and internal misalignment around key strategic and programmatic questions.
In 2012, Higher Achievement set a bold goal – “by 2030, all students in Higher Achievement cities will graduate from high school, ready for college” – and built a believable strategy to accompany it. The goal and supporting strategy provided the north star needed to increase alignment among staff, to clarify direction on the key strategic questions with which the organization was wrestling, and to inspire partners and funders. Schools began lining up to partner with Higher Achievement, the organization reversed a threatening financial trend, and received a grant from a major national foundation whose support endued credibility and stability. In 2013, one of Higher Achievement’s new partner schools realized a 14% gain in math and reading proficiency, compared to an average gain of ~4% across other schools in the city.
Words of Wisdom from Lynsey Jeffries, CEO
- “Throughout the goal-setting process, I did several gut-checks. It needed to pass my own litmus test: ‘do I really believe this goal is possible?’ ‘Will it inspire me and others for the years ahead?’”
- “Remind yourself of why you entered this field in the first place. Reconnect with that idealism. We need more hard-working idealists to actually make this world better. Don’t compromise your dreams—dream bolder and do more. It IS possible.”
Lumina Foundation’s Bold Goal Story
In the mid-2000s, Lumina Foundation began asking itself: “What does success look like?” Lumina prided itself on a mission-driven approach, but found that its mission—to expand access and success in education beyond high school—rarely provided decisive direction. As the Foundation ruminated, the staff discovered compelling and relevant data: the U.S. was falling behind other countries in post-secondary educational attainment. Pairing this with research showing that 65% of jobs will require such credentials by 2020, the Foundation arrived at Goal 2025: “Increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials to 60% by 2025.”
After setting Goal 2025, the Foundation found that many long-term struggles about direction and prioritization dissipated. Everything was seen and understood in the context of the goal. Outside the Foundation, the clarity and rationale of the goal have inspired action: 38 states have adopted some form of attainment goal and there has been increased interest in evidence-based policies and programs that can get us collectively closer to Goal 2025. At the end of the day, the Foundation is holding itself accountable to the goal itself: since 2008, the percentage of working-age adults with at least an associate degree has steadily risen from 37.9% in 2008 to 38.7% in 2011.
Words of Wisdom from Dewayne Matthews, Vice President of Policy and Strategy
- “You have to do this[: set a bold goal]. Otherwise, aren’t you just spinning your wheels?”
- “Think about what is the best available data about the area that you’re focused on: what’s the indicator that best describes the condition of the population, geography and issue that you care about. Your goal should aim at the simplest measure of that.”
City Year’s Bold Goal Story
Over its first two decades, City Year helped catapult community service to the national stage, deploying its corps to a variety of service projects in multiple fields and inspiring the founding of AmeriCorps. But, City Year wanted to be able to measure and aggregate clear, consistent impact. In the mid-2000s, after recognizing that its core asset (young volunteers) could power the implementation of proven education reforms and that there was an increasing demand from schools, City Year began to shift toward a focus on serving in schools.
As City Year’s leadership charted its education strategy, they identified a specific problem to target: the nation’s dropout crisis. Incorporating academic research and internal metrics, City Year mapped out a long-term impact strategy pointed towards a bold goal: “By 2023, at least 80% of students in schools where City Year serves will reach the 10th grade on time and on track each year. City Year will reach 50% of off-track students in the cities that account for 2/3 of the nation’s urban dropouts.”
Setting this goal has clarified priorities across the organization, providing a clear guide for questions like where to grow and how to assess progress. City Year is seeing promising results across its network: 84% of students in grades 3-5 improved on literacy assessments and 46% of students in grades 6-9 improved their attendance (2012-2013).
Words of Wisdom from Michael Brown, Co-Founder and CEO
- “Consider what your organization is committed to – your mission, your values, and why you exist. You, as one organization cannot do everything, but what’s the one biggest thing you could take on? What is the biggest possible impact you could have?”
- “Setting a Long-Term Impact Goal cannot rest on one leader. You need a team of a core group of strategic leaders and thinkers who keep one another inspired and focused, and who keep the march going forward. One person cannot sustain the momentum.”
We seek (1) additional examples of efforts (e.g., organizations, collaboratives) that have made the leap to setting a bold goal and (2) opportunities to help other efforts make this leap. Please help connect us with such efforts! Post in the comments below or send us an email.