By Larry Brooks
In his book, Good to Great and The Social Sectors, Jim Collins articulated a question many struggled to ask. Namely, how could the nonprofit sector shift its focus from inputs to outputs, which moves us closer to measuring the genuine impact of the organization’s work? Collins’ words paved the way for even more important queries, including not only how does a nonprofit measure impact, but also how does it articulate its impact.
These ideas marked an inflection point in the way we approach and engage charitable giving. We now better understand how to examine social sector organizations and how to determine if they are measurably, thoughtfully, and successfully making an impact. This outputs-focused approach advances the entire social sector. Repair The World (Repair), an organization I am fortunate to support, focuses on these three areas in a truly meaningful way, and is worth examining.
Each year, Repair commissions an evaluation of its flagship Communities program, which connects Jewish young adults with local opportunities to make a meaningful difference in their community. Based on peer-to-peer engagement, the program is animated by a Fellowship program in which recent college graduates serve for a year supporting the work of Repair’s local partner organizations. Together, they engage local volunteers to extend the organizations’ capacity to meet the needs of residents. In the 2013-14 program year, Fellows engaged 3,600 unique participants in their communities. By 2016-17, the number of unique participants grew to 25,000 – of whom a strong majority are coming back repeatedly and reporting increased understanding of Jewish values, while 80% of local partners report increasing their capacity through the volunteers. Repair achieved this level of growth and impact not only by measuring and assessing results at the end of each year, but, more importantly, by aggressively targeting and testing the future potential of the Communities program. In fact, by 2022 Repair now aims to engage 180,000 unique volunteers – while growing the power of the program on both volunteers and partners. This is measurable impact.
Collins agrees, of course, that numbers alone tell only part of a nonprofit’s story. One has to dig deeper to gain a fuller picture of the organization and of its greater impact. In this regard, Repair not only engages thousands of volunteers in service, but also ensures that the work is authentically connected to the self-expressed needs of the marginalized and often vulnerable communities they serve. Through a focus on training and on culture-building, Repair fosters Fellow and volunteer service with – and never “for” or “to” – the community. In particular, Repair follows the lead of its local partners to ensure that the service is deeply relationship driven and that it avoids the counterproductive dynamics that can accompany attempts by outsiders, however well intentioned, to meet needs of marginalized communities. Through a partnership with Digital Girl Inc., for example, NYC Repair Fellows and volunteers in Bed Stuy serve alongside residents who introduce students in underperforming schools to computer coding. And, Repair provided 33 percent of the mentors at Higher Achievement in Pittsburgh over the past four years. Repair starts with where the local communities most value the support they can get from volunteers, and only then works to make the service experiences meet the needs of the volunteers. This is thoughtful impact.
So, “what makes this a Jewish program” you might ask. First, Repair integrates Jewish values and learning into all of its activities and experiences. Fellows are trained, through train-the-trainer models, to ensure that learning occurs in meaningful and personally relevant ways. Repair Fellows also offer young adults opportunities they often crave to create Jewish experiences in new and innovative ways outside of the community’s traditional Jewish institutions. Repair Fellows become role models for Jewish young adults who seek new ways to blend the Jewish element of their identity with others. Many young adults find great power in tying the expression of their Jewishness to their work improving lives and communities. As data supports, and one volunteer says, “It’s not that the Jewish piece makes me like volunteering more, the volunteering makes me like my Judaism more.” In fact, 91% of Fellows say that their experience increased their commitment to at least one type of Jewish learning or practice. This is successful impact.
These spheres – measurable, thoughtful, and successful – are helpful tools to explore the different types of impact an organization may have. In the coming weeks, we will learn even more about Repair’s Communities’ impact through the Year 4 Evaluation of the program. We look forward to sharing that with the field and better understanding our influence on the lives of young people and in the communities that we strive to serve. To learn more about Repair’s work and current campaign, “Act Now,” visit WeRepair.org.
Larry Brooks is the board chair of Repair The World. He is also the SVP, Finance of Endeavor, an organization that is leading the High-Impact Entrepreneurship movement around the world. Endeavor supports 1,500 High-Impact Entrepreneurs that have generated over $10 billion in annual revenue (2017) and created more than 500,000 jobs. Larry holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Johns Hopkins University and an MBA from Columbia Business School.