Posted by Rise Wilson, Oct 27, 2015 0 comments

I recognize that for many artists and arts professionals the very language of “measuring impact” makes your skin crawl. That the highly personal, downright epistemological work you do is beyond the transactional input/output speech of “measurement.” That may or may not be so, but if we as cultural workers can’t articulate the significance of our work, we limit the full spectrum of support available to us. And if in aggregate we can’t name our impact as a field, we remain vulnerable to the persistent devaluation of arts and culture as frivolous at best and elitist and self-referential at worst.

So the question is How? How best to tell the story of our projects, our organizations, our purpose so that the meaning of our work is as transparent as the value it creates? And how to do so while negotiating the power dynamics of external standards driven by grant reporting requirements and an arts economy that regularly changes the mechanisms by which art is valued? 

Well, perhaps the following ideas can push us forward:

1. Yes, evaluation is a loaded term that conjures up problematic power dynamics

Particularly if you are dependent on grant funds to fuel your mission, evaluation—whether in the form of selection criteria or reporting requirements— can trigger feelings of being judged, of being forced into ill-fitting boxes and someone else’s rules. But the connotation does not have to be the denotation. As funders we can co-create reporting requirements based on grantee-defined benchmarks of progress in concert with our own organization’s needs. As grantees we can OWN our own stories, acting as partners with our funders by proactively supplying the language and frameworks through which they can best understand our creative projects. In my role at the Rauschenberg Foundation, I value learning from grantees what in their work is worth measuring, how they perform their assessments, and why.    

2. Self-assessment, however, is a powerful tool of self-determination

I recognize it’s probably a hard sell to get you geeked-up about your next grant report. But what this whole conversation really boils down to is this: you can’t shape your story if you can’t tell it yourself. So I encourage all of us who believe in the power of first-person testimony, who know the injustice of having someone else create the rules and then guard the gates of opportunity accordingly—that we fully embrace the agency available in planning and evaluative processes. Maurine Knighton’s opening post in this blog series provides a clear outline of why we can’t afford to dismiss this aspect of cultural work, especially when it intersects with working for justice.

3. Our toolboxes require both empathy and Excel 

When I created The Laundromat Project as a social enterprise I found people in finance and venture philanthropy circles asking me to measure things like transformation. I was irritated by their fundamental misunderstanding of our work and felt stymied by the idea of having to articulate some sort of “social return on investment” in order to gain the kind of investment necessary for the scale of my vision. The LP’s currency was (and is) relationships, self-discovery, and nurturing the agency of our neighbors in ways that do not easily (or willingly) translate to workforce development, higher test scores, or positioning poor people to be better cogs in the capitalist wheel. Frustrated as I may have been, my lesson was that I needed to expand my toolbox in order to tell The LP’s story to its wide-ranging stakeholders. The fact is we don’t all speak the same language and if I want their partnership, it’s on me to be the translator. Is it an extra burden? Perhaps. But it yielded an ability to look at The LP’s work through multiple lenses, recognizing the gaps between its intentions and how it may be received.  

4. Don’t give over your power if the terminology or tools aren’t your flavor

I find “logic models” to be useful algebra, solving for purpose instead of for x. But I fully cop to my nerdiness. “Theories of change” and “matrices” don’t have to float your boat in order to create regular, effective planning and reflective processes. If you can’t find a tool that resonates, design one yourself. Whether you adopt fellow Lab participant Chris Dwyer’s framework (published tomorrow), pick up David Grant’s new book, or chart your own course, the key is to be able to perform candid, thorough inventories of your work’s purpose and progress:

How will the world be different as a result of this project? And how will I know?

As I chart this vision, how do I include the various stakeholders of my project’s success into the process for naming that success and keeping tabs on it?

How might I create a culture of reflection in my organization so that we are constantly applying the lessons of our collective efforts?

What would it take to make planning a normal first step for any substantive project we invest in?

What is the best system for my organization to both design and discern success?

Chances are if you are able to answer these kinds of questions you will produce observations that are light years ahead of simply reporting the number of people who attended your last program. Chances are that you will be able to master the narrative and the numbers that reveal both your accomplishments and your opportunities for growth. And that level of self-direction is truly where your power lies.

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