Soundbites: The Metrics That Matter in Housing Development

Soundbites

Maggie Grieve of Success Measures discusses a collaborative approach to building powerful metrics and serving more than 600 community-based organizations.

Hi, this is Deirdre Hess with Heron.org Soundbites, and I'm sitting here today with Maggie Grieve from Success Measures at NeighborWorks America. Hi, Maggie.

Hi.

Thanks for being here with me. Success Measures is one of Heron's grantees, and we're really looking forward today to hearing from you about what you do and how you do it, but let's start, actually, with the basics. Tell us what Success Measures is, and why it matters.

Well, Success Measures is a social enterprise that operates at NeighborWorks America, which is a large, national non-profit intermediary organization in the housing and community development arena. Success Measures was started by a group of community development organizations more than 20 years ago, and moved to NeighborWorks in 2004 to be the capacity builder for nonprofit organizations and their philanthropic partners to learn how to really measure impact over time. So outcome measurement, participatory in its sort of planning and execution and really track[ing] those harder to measure things about the change that occurs for people and places over time.

What are some of those harder to measure things? Why is that needed?

The community development and housing field had gotten really good at counting housing units, and then maybe the economic spillover benefits of those, the jobs created. But what community developers were saying is, "We do so much more. We're changing people's confidence in the potential of their neighborhood, their willingness to invest in their own property, the sort of sense of neighborliness and safety, resident satisfaction and living in that place, capacity to take action to work on the problems that they're addressing in very low income communities." We set out, really, to find ways to measure those harder to measure things.

What are some of those impact measures?

We now have nine different sets of data collection tools, over 350 in all, in English and Spanish that are easy to use, culturally relevant, and tailored really for the life that people live in low and moderate-income communities. They're really easy to understand, but they're rigorous across and comparable to research tools, but they've been really made friendly. They're in financial capabilities: how are people doing as they're learning, really, how to gain their financial stability. They're in affordable housing, quality of housing; they're in community revitalization and resident satisfaction with quality of life. 

Our newest area is the health outcomes of housing and community development work, so those social determinants of health. How do we begin to measure when a housing program or multi-family property is running a nutrition program, exercise program, a community garden? Those don't really fit the traditional housing metrics, but you can begin to measure how people's lives are changing based on good tools that just ask people a few questions.

That's incredible. Success Measures is a recipient of one of Heron's Enterprise Capital Grants. Tell me why that money was needed or useful, what it was used for and what kind of outcomes have you seen from that?

Well, you have to understand a little bit about what kind of business we are, because we came to NeighborWorks America, really, [we] were acquired from another smaller intermediary organization in 2004 by NeighborWorks America. NeighborWorks, which is a large partially federally-funded intermediary, didn't have program funds to support the enterprise, but they thought both the Success Measures tools and the technology platform that we have, and the technical assistance services, would be very valuable for the 240 organizations that they support annually, but also the community development field as a whole. 

We were, from the very beginning, had to be a self-sufficient social enterprise, and we were, and have positive net revenue from 2004 moving forward. The Heron Foundation was one of the very early, before I was even involved with Success Measures, supporters, they were at the very first meeting when the idea was generated in 1996. They continued to be a purchaser of services from Success Measures when we moved to NeighborWorks for the grantees they had in their old funding model, and so we sort of stayed in touch with the Heron Foundation over time.

Because we had to be a self-sustaining social enterprise, really, as a startup, we lived on a very thin margin of what we could invest in in terms of marketing and sales, what we could invest in, in terms of building a new technology platform to keep up with the rapid pace of technology advancement. We also always intended to be an influencer within the field, so to take the learnings, the fascinating things that people were learning in their communities, what it took for people to really invest and get good at evaluation, and work with partners in their community around those things.

Impact Notes:
Supported nearly 800 community-based organizations and 28 of their funding and intermediary partners.
Trained and introduced thousands of community development professionals and practitioners.
Expanded the number of shared outcome measures offered through the Success Measures Data System to more than 250 data collection instruments.

We had, really, three goals. To improve our products and services for existing clients and new clients we could get, to add to our content areas, so that we could help other sectors, not just the sort of core part of housing and community development, and then to begin to share the knowledge that we had built and increase that dissemination.

Those were our three key things, but we knew that to do that, we needed capital, and so we began to do a business plan to begin to think about what would it take. First, we thought it really would have to be sort of from traditional kinds of funding, but developed before Heron developed its enterprise capital grant, a philanthropic equity campaign working with the Nonprofit Finance Fund. That's how we became the first grantee, because we were sort of ready with the campaign when Heron decided to take this turn.

Oh, that's fascinating. What measures or statistics are important to you as you manage the business to tell you if you're succeeding in your mission?

Partly, it really is about client satisfaction. We've worked with almost 800 community-based organizations in 215 metro areas and rural communities across the country. How effectively those organizations are able to use the data they gather, and what that means for their own enterprises and their own nonprofits, and how they're able to shape their programs to better serve the people in communities that they're focused, their mission is to serve, is really a critical piece. 

We look at retention of subscribers to our technology platform, Success Measures database, and we try to target at least 70 percent. Not everybody does this kind of evaluation every year, so it wouldn't be realistic to think that we should aim for 100 percent, because people--we have, as part of our mission, we hold people's data, whether or not they're an active subscriber, they can return to subscribing or return to being a client, and their data is preserved.

We also look at those regular client satisfaction measures, and then we do look at how our business is growing, because that's important for us to continue to serve our mission. Another sort of dimension is how effectively are we serving the different components of the community development field very broadly, combined. We work with organizations in the financial capability space, so asset development, foreclosure mitigation counseling, home ownership counseling, financial coaching, and so we look also by those kinds of segments.

Okay. That's good. Tell me some stories. What is maybe something that a client has done by using your platform or your technology? What are some of the outcomes you've heard of happening because Success Measures exists?

When I think about stories, I think about some of our larger projects, where there are many organizations that are using shared measures, who might be in the same grant portfolio or something like that. One is the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, which is based in Philadelphia, but funds in New Jersey, Delaware, and Eastern Pennsylvania. They have a very interesting grant program that funds neighborhood plans that are resident-driven, and then if people are successful in creating that resident-driven neighborhood plan and have defined the things that they think would make a difference in their community, the foundation funds at a fairly substantial level the implementation of that plan. They're longer-term funders, and at the beginning, in the planning stage, they do a particular evaluation in their community, and then they do it again at the fifth-year mark and then going on in time after that.

They had planned to launch into the real estate development pieces, both the commercial and the residential, when the recession happened, so they had very ambitious goals. The recession happened, wasn't ... They weren't able to move forward with the physical, so it was a very interesting way to look at just what was, really, the benefit over time of their organizing strategies. Within a three, four-year period, they had improved quality of life on 14 factors of quality of life that were statistically significant, so from 14 to 20 percent gain, by just doing the engagement strategies, cleaning up a park that was very drug-infested, programming for youth, doing door-to-door kind of basic organizing. Within community development, that's a really interesting thing to know. Most people don't take the time. They were able, then, to springboard and move forward and do development projects after that, but that gave them an interim look, really, at how they were doing.

That's incredible. Thank you so much, Maggie, for sharing this. Is there anything else top of mind that you want to share?

Well, just, I think that people can think that evaluation is either something that's really just the purview of academics and universities, or maybe you have to bring in a third party. I think the field building thing that Success Measures really wants to contribute to the field is that you can do quality data collection and analysis. It's not beyond the skills of strong nonprofit organizations that, by sharing research instruments and data collection tools that have been developed and can be used broadly across the field, and technology that helps you make that easy, you can weave in just the way you weave in strategic planning or your annual review of your organization's programs this kind of really valuable outcome evaluation that really does begin to tell you the change that you're having in your community.

I can see that that's hugely important. Thank you so much, Maggie. With Heron.org, this is Deirdre Hess.

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