Nonprofit groups learn to measure success

United Way gets progress reports

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Phidesja Hudson, 9, is doing better in school this year. What she does after school has been helping.

For a year, Phidesja has been coming to the Boys & Girls Club, where a mandatory homework hour is combined with recreation. In that time, her reading has improved from kindergarten to second-grade level.

"She loves this place, and she's learning a lot," said her mother, Belinda Hudson. "It's not like she's stressing at school anymore. Before, she used to say, 'Mommy, I have a headache.' It was like she was saying, 'Mommy, I just want to give up.' "

Boys & Girls Clubs of Augusta directors know intuitively that their after-school programs make a difference for children such as Phidesja. But they also have the numbers to back it up.

About half of the kids who attend the Boys & Girls Club centers bring their grades up across all subjects. Seventy-five percent improve in homework completion and class participation.

The organization can report numbers such as these because it measures outcomes. Other nonprofits are joining that trend.

Four years ago, United Way of the CSRA began asking for outcomes measurements from all groups it funds.

"In a competitive nonprofit environment, we want to have a good idea of whose programs are making a difference in our community," said Brook Steele, the group's community impact director.

Aimee Hall, the director of Safehomes, an Augusta domestic violence center, said the outcomes model changes the way she thinks about her program.

"Our funders have always wanted to know how many victims we've served," Hall said. "Now they want to know more about what kind of life change they've experienced because of our services."

Safehomes surveys its clients before and after counseling to see what new insights they've gained and to learn whether outreach programs have increased community awareness of its services.

Putting a number to progress against domestic violence can be tricky, however. Victims will leave an abuser an average of seven times before they finally break the cycle. But Hall believes tracking for outcomes has increased effectiveness, for example, by better identifying whether a client's greatest need at the outset is for food, shelter, knowledge or skills.

"You can get complacent, think you've seen this before, and give the exact same services you did before," said Hall. "This lets you know when things are different. It's harder."

Boys & Girls Clubs of Augusta began tracking its outcomes 10 years ago.

"The biggest difference was we started asking the question, 'So what?' " Executive Director Kam Kyzer said. "So a child has been here at the Boys & Girls Club. What difference in his life did that actually make?"

In the beginning, the group collected copies of report cards in exchange for a free hot dog. Today, a board of education information technology employee tracks student progress.

Kyzer cautions that many factors besides her program contribute to a child's success. But "cherry-picking" the best kids doesn't appear to be one of them. Eighty-five percent of children attending Boys & Girls Clubs live in public housing. Most come from households that earn less than $25,000 a year, and 90 percent are run by single moms.

"We see the kids who are facing the greatest barriers to success," Kyzer said.


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