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Seeking better outcomes? Live in the market.

This is the twenty-first in a series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change.

“People don’t buy products. People don’t buy services. People buy outcomes. There’s the old saying that you don’t really want a drill, you want a hole.

–          Indispensable: How To Become The Company That Your Customers Can’t Live Without by Joe Calloway

While Joe Calloway’s claim above is in reference to consumer products, it increasingly applies to nonprofits as well.  Many individual donors and foundations are no longer satisfied by programs that “sound cool.”  Having an impressive number of “clients served” or “food items delivered” does not spark the interest that such statistics once did.  Donors seek hard outcomes data – their “old saying” might be phrased as: “you don’t really want a food nutrition program, you want a community of residents that make smart food choices.”

Due to this increased demand for results, many nonprofits are investing time and resources in measuring the outcomes of their programs.  But is the answer to producing outcomes and impact really contained in building measurement systems?  Or, does “getting to impact” require designing and re-designing our work to focus on outcomes from the start?

Answer: it’s all of the above – both smart design and rigorous evaluation are needed.

For direct service organizations, designing for outcomes and for transformational change is not an activity that can successfully be completed in a private conference room or over the phone with a funders.  Instead, as Amy explained in her last post, it takes a deep commitment to “living in the market.”

Can we truly design an effective intervention to curb homelessness in our city without deeply understanding the daily lives of those who are homeless?  Can we fight teen pregnancy without surrounding ourselves with teenagers and understanding their highs, lows, challenges and successes?

As the world-famous design firm IDEO explains in their Human-Centered Design Toolkit: “Putting yourself in someone’s shoes enables you to get beyond what people say to what they think and feel. Being in-context means gaining true empathy through being with people in their real settings and doing the things they normally do. This kind of deep immersion gives us Informed Intuition that we take back with us to design solutions.”

In the social sector, mobile dentistry vans are a prime example of a service developed through deep immersion into market.  The creators saw a problem in their community – access to critical dental services in rural areas – and thought deeply about why this problem existed. They talked with children and families in the areas they hoped to serve.  They sought to understand their daily lives, their gains and pains and the barriers they faced finding and accessing dental services. They brainstormed solutions based on the conditions and the situation and they tested those ideas in and with the community.

Bold ideas, academically grounded research, collaboration, compelling theories of change can each contribute to fantastic programs. But very rarely will they do so without being coupled with a strong understanding of the market.  Organizations that live in the market are also the organizations whose programs demonstrate powerful outcomes. And are those that ultimately achieve transformational change.

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Will DeKrey

About Will DeKrey

As Manager of Networks & Knowledge, Will DeKrey oversees the curation, synthesis and sharing of knowledge within Community Wealth Partners and with external stakeholders in order to advance our collective understanding of how to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. Prior to this role, Will served on the consulting team at Community Wealth Partners. Will was a 1st Place Winner of the National Conference on Citizenship’s 2012 Civic Data Challenge. See Will's full bio

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