This year the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) celebrates the 10 year mark of the Ten Year Plan to end Homelessness. This provides their leadership and Calgarians an opportunity for some reflection of the success and failures of this plan. When this plan was first launched it came with much optimism and fanfare. The first of its kind in North America and built off of experiences from other cities who have attempted to tackle this complex problem. The simple question asked: Did CHF accomplish the goal of ending homelessness? Leading to the simple answer of NO. There is a deeper question, and that is what I want to explore – is the motivation to end a presenting problem like homelessness, or is the motivation to address the more systemic issue of poverty? By scraping away the presenting symptom of poverty – homelessness, we can actually look at the real metrics that need to be measured around the impact that homelessness has on a person or a family.
The Face of Homelessness
We all have an impression of what homelessness looks like. In Calgary, a large percentage of people facing homelessness are the working poor. These are individuals who are working in precarious employment, or have multiple part-time jobs piecemealed together enough money to cover basic needs. These are the individuals that when a utility bill is too high, have to make a choice of paying rent and miss paying utilities or vice versa. Of course having to choose between these two bad options means that either the person loses a place to live (therefore becomes homeless) or has their utilities cut off or penalized leading to further detrimental economic hardship. This is why ending homelessness is not what should be measured. What should be measured is how effective are we as a society at moving people out of a precarious lifestyle and poverty cycle into a more stable lifestyle and economic growth cycle.
Evaluating Charities for Impact
So how should a funder measure the impact of an organization like the Calgary Homeless Foundation?
When we work with clients helping them set up their Giving Portfolio part of our process includes evaluating which organizations to partner with. We have identified six benchmarks that are indicative of highly effective nonprofits:
- Program Implementation
- Community Engagement
- Governance (policies & procedures)
- Funding & Financials
Reflecting on the six benchmarks allows a funder and partner to determine which areas are strong and which areas are weak.
Connecting the Dots
Leadership and governance influences the organizational design. In turn this drives program development and community engagement, ultimately leading to funding and further access to resources (human and financial). The end result provides you with a snapshot of what the likely challenges will be in executing this program within this charity.
Looking Backward to Plan Forward
Since this program was started 10 years ago we are now at the stage where we have to look backwards. Hindsight is always 20/20.
To help put an impact evaluation into practical context here are some questions that you might ask when evaluating an organization AFTER a contribution has been made. These questions fit into the six benchmarks:
Leadership, Governance –
- How stable is the leadership since receiving your funding?
- Were there changes at the management or board level that helped push the project along or shifted the focus of the project?
- How engaged was the board and/or senior management in how this project tied in with the overall mandate of the agency or the needs of the community in which this agency operates?
Program Implementation –
- What were my intentions and goals and were they reached?
- Looking at the milestones the organization identified, have they been met? How were they measured?
Community Engagement –
- What learning went on within the organization as a result of this project/program being funded? How was this documented and shared externally with the broader community for increased knowledge?
- How were others engaged in this program? What was the response by similar organizations? Did this project/organization shift or disrupt the system in which it operates?
- How did external forces, like public policy, shape or shift the way funds were used and as a result the program was implemented?
- In light of current trends in the employment landscape, is this organization consistent with its hiring policies and do those policies reflect the values that the organization espouses?
- How has your relationship with the organization influenced the management and program team?
- As a result of your engagement with this organization/project deepened your understanding of the issue?
Funding & Financials –
- Was my donation spent as it was intended, designated, or originally requested? If not, was I informed along the way? How was this managed?
- What is the financial outlook for this organization?
- Did the organization leverage your donation to attract other funders or project partners?
Tying it all Together
When looking at the effectiveness of the Calgary Homeless Foundation there are a few things that would require a deeper dive, specifically around the milestones that were laid out ten years ago and how the organization pivoted to meet those milestones. It is important to note that CHF had to adjust their expectations in light of a changing political and economic environment.
One could argue that a broad statement of ending homelessness is not only too simplistic, it is not a well understood statement. Without context around how mental health issues are managed, how our justice and education systems work, how we have institutionalized poverty to the extent that we have as a society, and how funding is distributed by government to those very “poverty reduction” agencies, ending a presenting problem like homelessness is not really the metric to be considered.
As a strategic funder working alongside an organization means that you are in a unique position to support the agency financially while at the same time provide a different set of eyes on the issue. You have the luxury of your position to ask the questions that might not seem so obvious to those who are working day in and day out on the problem.
To this end, congratulations to the Calgary Homeless Foundation for pushing the envelope on this critical issue! Now that a decade has passed it is time to get down to business of really looking at the systemic issues of poverty and really disrupt the way that we manage the homelessness question.