Why just count when you can measure true impact?

When I arrived at Diakon in 2015, I was impressed with a number of things: the scope and breadth of programs, the difference those programs made in lives, the unbroken heritage of service since 1868 and the dedication and commitment of staff throughout the organization.

The time was also one of challenge and change.

We were essentially giving birth to a new organization as Diakon Child, Family & Community Ministries—offering such services as adoption and foster care, at-risk youth services and counseling and behavioral health care for people of all ages—was created as a “sister” to Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries.

In line with that creation, we needed to make more-efficient use of our limited benevolent-care dollars. We needed to grow our programs, both in scope and geography. And we needed to demonstrate our impact.

Historically, nonprofit social service and child-and-family organizations have struggled with calculating the outcome of our work on those we serve. In fact, the types of care we provide sometimes may seem difficult to measure. We are not like “regular” health care in which it is usually easy to determine if the patient improved or got worse.

Facing such challenges, we historically measured “impact” by counting services delivered and people served, rather than focusing on whether these services had a lasting beneficial effect on the lives of the people served.

We wanted to move beyond that—and be part of leading-edge efforts to document the impact of our services, particularly important as treatment moves more fully toward evidence-based services.

Fortunately, in 2015, we were privileged to participate in the first-ever provider quality improvement exchange sponsored by Lutheran Services in America and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The LSA group (pictured above) focused on creating evidence-based practices and outcomes-guided programs to improve the well-being and lives of at-risk youths and families.

Our participation in the Casey collaborative helped Diakon to move beyond mere “counting.”

Our staff members began by asking ourselves what “success” would be like for each of our programs.

For example, in the arena of permanency services (foster care and adoption), we concluded that several factors important to our success were:

•    Ability to successfully match children and youths in foster care with resource families.
•    To do so without disruption.
•    And to do so with families who were trained and felt competent to meet their needs.

If eventual family reunification was not possible, we determined that another measure of success was our ability to work collaboratively with the youths, county staff, legal services and judges to expedite permanency for the youth, whether through adoption or permanent legal guardianship—and in a reasonable time-frame.

Focusing on outcomes and results, rather than counting and process, we were able to create baseline measures of our impact, set goals for improvement and measure our progress on a quarterly basis.

And so we now have various outcome and quality-improvement measures in place for each of our programs and are sharing those outcomes in a variety of ways including on our websites. Connecting with those we serve and those who refer to us about these outcomes and the results they seek has been critically important to the success of this process.

For our staff members, the process provides feedback on the impact of their work.

For agencies that refer to us or provide grants to us, it demonstrates the quality of our work and the results we produce for the families we serve.

In fact, we have recently been awarded several contracts in part because of our ability to demonstrate measurable, objective and positive outcomes for the people we serve.

At the same time, we strongly believe that our quality-improvement and outcomes processes reflect a journey, not a destination.

As a result, we remain open to adjusting our goals and objectively measuring and redefining what success look like—always with a focus on how we are creating a real, lasting and measurable impact on the lives of those we serve.

By Shari VanderGast, Esq., LCSW, FACHE
Senior Vice President for Operations and Business Development, Diakon Child, Family & Community Ministries

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