Loosening the Evaluation Stranglehold

Every day, young people around the world—including Pittsburgh and all of Allegheny County—struggle to connect in meaningful ways to the world around them. They’re yanked on and dragged around by the adults in the lives, being sent to school, dropped off in after school programs, made to come to dinner, forced to kiss their great aunt Bertha… They struggle to make those connections meaningfully.

In the meantime, businesses are marketing products to children and youth like never before, selling them on the notion that they can connect to their favorite brand all over the place, all the time, and that’s all that matters. Every young person seems to know what Hershey’s candy bars are. iPhones, Nikes, Forever 21, and Facebook have extremely engaged youth consumer bases.

Some people think nonprofits need to act like those businesses. Many youth-serving organizations are being pressured to reform the ways they serve their constituencies according to the philosophies of people like Dan Pollota and funders who demand the usage of the Youth Program Quality Assessment. The intention of many folks who promote the stance that nonprofits need to be business-like, emphasizing accountability, ROI, and similar strategies, is well-meaning. Indoctrinated by business profiteers who fund philanthropies, many nonprofits are struggling to meet these expectations.

There’s a simpler way to go, and all afterschool programs should go for it.

In the ancient Greek empire, philosophers often sought to promote core values rather than complex rubrics for self-reflection and personal growth. Their holistic approaches to seeing the world were matched by these values, and although all of their actions weren’t aligned with them, general philosophical beliefs were. (Their philosophy before Socrates is said to be aligned with Eastern beliefs including the Tao and Buddhist impermanence, as will the following.)

In the same vein, youth programs—and all nonprofits—should move away from intricate dollar-for-dollar assessment and invest in deeper, more substantial change through the communities and populations they serve.

I have created a document that I think embodies this deeper way of being. Its not meant to summarize activities, emphasize outcomes, or promote accountability. Instead, its thinking about our whole lives as a way of living, including our youth programs, nonprofit organizations, schools, families, neighborhoods… all of a young person’s life. I call my document the Get Engaged Manifesto.

To be more successful, we need fewer strangleholds on our work, not more. Our public school teachers have been saying this over the last decade as they’ve labored under excruciating evaluations of their effects on student learning. Hopefully nonprofits won’t have to go through a decade of similar struggles in order to learn this lesson too.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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