On Learning Path

As a nonprofit with a big mission and a narrow budget, we take pride in accomplishing everything we’re able to do at Sustainable Food Center. And if you didn’t know, we do a lot. Sometimes, however, it can feel like the act of carrying out a project is the accomplishment. In certain cases that’s true. We can all agree that the act of doing something to serve a pressing need in society is praiseworthy. But like all nonprofits, SFC exists to make an impact in the communities we serve. Impact is more than doing the work. It means making a difference in people’s lives. Impact is how we stay relevant to our clients, and it’s how we attract funding to our organization. As is the case with a majority of nonprofits, SFC sometimes struggles to decipher how much of a difference we are making, and what that means for the community at large. There’s a growing trend across the industry, and especially in Austin, for organizations to focus on evaluating their impact and thereby gaining the insight to improve their work. SFC is catching the wave, and for us, it all starts with fostering a “culture of learning” among our staff.

Over the past decade, our leadership team has endeavored on many different ways to establish or improve how we evaluate our impact, such as hiring consultants to help us create logic models, or investing in months-long strategic planning processes to set mission-driven goals and objectives for the organization. While those efforts have been beneficial to the organization in many respects, we also realize that we are squarely in the middle of the pack as far as having the tools or requisite experience to really see the impact of our work.

The Evaluation and Learning Collaborative, a group of several area philanthropies, has been investing in ways to enrich organizations like SFC with focused learning opportunities to their evaluation needs. The 2016 Data Institute, a one-day conference on data and evaluation run by Mission Capital and sponsored by the Collaborative, helped springboard some of SFC’s nascent evaluation efforts into full-fledged strategies. Above all, the conference made it abundantly clear that as an organization we needed to commit to working on evaluation indefinitely – that a one-stop shop to work with a consultant, for instance, isn’t necessarily a long-term solution, and that evaluation isn’t something you do quarterly or annually, but constantly.

Our latest foray in improving our evaluation efforts began last spring when consultants from PKE Insights and Agile Analytics worked with SFC’s program leads and me to develop an annual evaluation plan for the 2017 fiscal year. Soon after that process was complete, we found out that we had received a multi-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to essentially evaluate the “Farm to School” movement in Austin, which required a thorough evaluation plan that we didn’t yet have. It was obvious then that we needed a staff team dedicated to talking through all this data we wanted to collect, manage and analyze.

In just a year’s time, our concept of evaluation, and our responsibility to it has truly evolved. The annual evaluation plan and Kellogg-funded project are both coming into focus, and we now have a dedicated internal team that meets once a month to hash out ideas and troubleshoot challenges. With planning underway for our next fiscal year, we’re seeing program staff really think critically about what kind of data we are collecting, and how it will help us better understand our impact. We’re even discussing how we can establish “evaluation” as its own budget category so that we can build it into grant proposals that help fund our operations.

This is all to say that, in order to provide the best possible programming and resources to the Austin community, we have to be both honest and curious about what difference we’re making in people’s lives. And our journey on this learning path dovetails well with other exciting initiatives we are undertaking, such as our ongoing commitment to racial justice, which led us last year to develop a Racial Justice Strategic plan to help guide new policies and processes going forward. I, for one, am excited to see how my incredibly talented colleagues take this newfound enthusiasm for evaluation and translate it into a greater impact on the local food system.