How do we measure a return on human development? Genuine Voices, a non-profit working with detention centers in the US that leverages the determination of volunteers to help adolescent boys, set out to measure their impact. After encountering difficulties, they learned that some things are naturally unquantifiable, and that in lieu of ways to directly report a “return on mission”, maybe emotional buzz is enough to support sustainability.
BOSTON, United States – In the Darwinian world of for-profits, only the strongest survive. We have countless ratios like return on investment, return on equity, return on sales, etc., to rate the performance and financial solvency of major companies. However, that isn’t the case in the world of non-profits. Measuring success is an open-ended question where everyone has their own answer. In addition, success doesn’t guarantee longevity in the life of a non-profit. Organizations with “trendy missions” continue to receive donations, despite gross mismanagement and lack of impact. Countless stories have broken in the last few years about mismanagement of non-profits, including Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. Who could forget the United Way scandal of the early 90s, where CEO William Aramony was sentenced to prison for looting the organization of millions? And still we see countless worthy organizations floundering because they just can’t gain momentum. How do we reward those organizations that don’t have the political capital or scale to gain notoriety, have no clear way to report impact, but are still successful in executing their mission? How do you measure this “return on mission”?
Take Genuine Voices for example. Founded in 2002, Genuine Voices teaches music to boys committed to juvenile detention centers in the Boston, Massachusetts area. Boys take classes twice a week, and specialize in an area that comes natural to them – drums, guitar, lyric writing, or producing. Once the boys are released, their involvement in the program ends. The boys’ identities are kept confidential as they are minors, so it is impossible to reach out and track recidivism rates in alumni of the program. There are success stories of boys who have voluntarily kept in touch with Genuine Voices staff, like Dequan who was featured by Boston.com. But he represents a minority of the over 600 students who participates each year. Especially as an organization with a $14,000 operating budget, resources barely cover program costs, let alone monitoring and evaluation. Artistic director Juri Love has ambitious plans to turn that $14,000 into $50,000 this year and $100,000 in 2014. However, current priorities are paying instructors and increasing the size of the program, not tracking impact. She currently relies on no full-time employees but 30 volunteers who all already know the importance and impact of program. Their priority is to grow the reach of Genuine Voices. Unfortunately, securing funding proves to be a catch-22; to attract donors, Genuine Voices needs to prove it works.
I visited the Casa Isla detention facility with two instructors for a weekly lesson. We drove 15 minutes down a winding road past a security check point, to a remote island just south of Boston. It was fitting, that on this remote island was a population that most of society would rather pretend didn’t exist at all. It’s no doubt that Genuine Voices is making a difference in the lives of these boys. But like others who have experienced or seen the program firsthand, I cannot quantify the feeling I felt when I observed the lesson. The excitement when we walked into the center was palpable. For once, these boys had something to look forward to in an otherwise monotonous day at the detention center. The instructors adeptly customized the lesson to the needs of the boy that day, from lyric writing to an impromptu jam session. They are not just teachers, but positive role models who commit to the mission, and believe in the power of music to change lives. Love describes their work succinctly, “These boys have been taught that they are a burden on their families and on the system. We let them be something more.”
The success of this program is contingent upon consistent and high-quality instructors. I was supposed to meet four teachers, but two were unable to attend because they had to work. It was evident that the two instructors I did meet, Steve Wilkinson and Wills McKenna, both professional musicians, have proven their worth to the boys by showing up and listening week after week. They’ve gained the trust of the boys – a crucial component in making the program work. But how is this model sustainable? You can’t continue to depend on teachers whose only compensation is personal satisfaction. Love’s goals for the program are ultimately to compensate her teachers $25 per hour. At two-hour lessons twice a week, this works out to only $5,000 a year to serve approximately 6-8 students. When it costs the Department of Youth Services and taxpayers $100,000 a year to care for one boy, the teacher’s salary seems a pittance, especially given the life-long impact it could have on one boy.
There are programs that are beginning to address some of these issues. Non-profits are smaller, more innovative and agile than government programs. Social impact bonds (SIB), which ultimately reward non-profits for reducing the government’s costs when dealing with an at risk population, are becoming a way to provide these non-profits the resources to operate on a larger scale. Essentially, the government contracts with an intermediary (like a large bank), who provides a loan to a non-profit. If the non-profit is successful in its initiatives (as rated by a third party rating agency), the state pays back the intermediary. This outsources the risk to for-profit organizations (the bank, in this case), and allows the government to take a chance on an innovative program that it is too sluggish to implement on its own. The first such program in the nation was announced in Massachusetts just last year, with the goal of dealing with juvenile justice and chronic homelessness. However, this initiative is in its infancy; only last year, McKinsey & Company issued a report about the potential of SIBs in the US. It certainly has a long way to go before it can widen its reach to be used with such tiny non-profits like Genuine Voices.
It is a common misconception that these boys have nothing to contribute to society. “These kids work. It’s just not socially acceptable,” Wilkinson told me, referring to theft, dealings and other unlawful actions that get the boys committed. “They steal to support a parent or younger sibling. We teach them to apply that effort to something positive.” The most powerful initiative of Genuine Voices is their involvement with the “Music is Medicine” program. Boys in the centers are commissioned to create original songs for children dealing with terminal illnesses. The song “Believe In You”, written by one of the boys I met that night at Casa Isla, will leave the listener with no doubt that these boys have good hearts. Unfortunately, we are still struggling with a system and a society that is reluctant to deal with cases like these and to provide substantial monetary support. Until we can begin to prove that initiatives like these do work, Juri Love and Genuine Voices will have to continue to believe, and do their best to convert others to believe as well.
This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.