Is Anyone Better Off? A Global Movement to Track Community Impact

3BL and Just Means)- Two weeks ago, community leaders from around the world came together in Johannesburg, South Africa to share tools and experiences with NGOs committed to deepening a culture of organizational accountability in Africa.  The summit, called RBA Africa Summit 2014, focused on Results Based Accountability (RBA), a tool designed to measure the impact of organizational activities and goals.

In his book “Trying Hard is Not Good Enough,” Mark Friedman details RBA as a framework for establishing “population level” outcomes– or big picture social goals– for policy makers, communities and coalitions.  RBA is also designed for the agency and program level, helping to track efforts and contributions to larger goals. RBA asks three questions to measure the impact that programs and organizations are having: “How much did we do?” “How well did we do it?” and most critically, “Is anyone better off?”

Among the delegates presenting at the conference was a group of individuals from Vermont including State Senator Diane Snelling. RBA has been field-tested in Vermont since 1993, but over the last two years a renewed, multi-stakeholder commitment to RBA has set the stage for unprecedented, collective action on issues of wellbeing in the state.

Diligently supporting this work is Benchmarks for a Better Vermont (Benchmarks), a partnership between Marlboro College Graduate School and Common Good Vermont. Benchmarks enlists a team of twelve, RBA coaches to offer training and guidance to nonprofits, state government, and the legislature. By providing high quality training, Benchmarks ensures that organizations have the capacity to creatively measure the impact they have on their communities. Hillary Boone, Benchmarks’ Program Manager and alumna of Marlboro's Masters in Managing Mission-Driven Organizations, says:

“The best part of my job is connecting with Vermonters who manage mission-driven organizations. We dig deeper than just measuring the amount of service they provide – we get to the heart of their work.”

In an example of a mentoring program, Boone says that RBA asks for information about the student mentees’ connectedness and level of trust in their mentor instead of asking only about the number of participants.

“It’s inspiring to help find data that corroborates the amazing stories and experiences created by mission-driven organizations in Vermont,” says Boone.

Benchmarks also insists on the necessity of collective action to make population level change and that no single organization can be held responsible for the outcomes.

“For example,” says Boone, “we all want children to be ready to succeed in school, but it takes more than one agency to accomplish that goal. We need families, teachers, pediatricians, nonprofits and government working together. It’s a community effort.”

According to Boone, at every stage of implementation, Results-Based Accountability pushes organizations to think about partnerships in order to complement and reinforce community work.

“When we all come to the table ready to invest, play to our strengths, and support each other, that’s when real change can happen,” says Boone.

Signed into law this June, Vermont legislature passed landmark legislation that put accountability and performance management into law. Senator Snelling, with the support of Representative Anne O’Brien and the Government Accountability Committee, developed and introduced Act 186. Act 186, known informally as the Outcomes Bill, is designed to increase accountability and create a structure for data-informed decision making in state government. It identifies eight quality of life outcomes for Vermonters, such as “Vermonters are healthy” and “Vermont’s environment is clean and sustainable.” These quality of life results will be measured using proxy indicators.

“The Outcomes Bill is the result of many thoughtful minds working together and setting a vision and a process to collaborate on the best future for Vermont,” says Senator Snelling.

The work being done in Vermont is getting noticed on an international level. At the RBA Africa Summit 2014, a Vermont contingent, including Senator Snelling, Boone, and Lamoille Family Center Executive Director Scott Johnson, shared the Vermont experience and lessons learned in a series of workshops. The presentations and connections will help communities throughout Africa work collectively to improve conditions of wellbeing. Back home, there is still work to do to ensure that Act 186 is implemented successfully.

“The passing of the Outcomes Bill was a victory for accountability in Vermont. Now we’ve got to do the hard work of using the framework to create real, positive outcomes for Vermonters,” says Boone.

Watch a video about RBA from CNBC Africa. Read about the International RBA Summit and the Results Leadership Group. Check out Benchmarks for a Better Vermont and the Guide to the Outcomes Bill

Credit: Thanks to Hillary Boone for her contribution to the writing of this piece.