Let’s face it — it’s a tough time to be in the democracy business. America’s democratic institutions and norms are under pressure from hyperpolarization, disruptive technologies, and foreign interference, to name a few things. And we’re not alone: new and established democracies all over the world are facing what Varieties of Democracy has dubbed the “third wave of autocratization”. So when I tell people that I’m the director of evaluation and learning at an organization dedicated to strengthening American democracy, the response I often get is a slightly raised eyebrow and the question “so…how’s that going for you?”
It’s a question intended to prompt a pithy response, I suppose, but I’m increasingly inclined to answer it honestly, and thoroughly. Because the truth is that while assessing impact in any kind of complex social system is hard, it’s particularly difficult when the problems you’re trying to solve are the really big ones and the headwinds you’re facing are especially strong. In these situations, real, meaningful impact is unpredictable, nonlinear, and often something that can only fully understood retrospectively. It’s no wonder that despite robust evaluation and learning practices, many social change organizations still struggle to understand, in real time, whether the work they’re doing is making a difference.
But I’m increasingly convinced that our challenge is not just in measuring the impact that we’re having — it’s in how we think about what impact looks like in the first place.
Transformative: This is “impact” the way its most commonly thought of. With transformative impact, we expect a positive change in the system over time compared to the static rate of the counterfactual.
Proactive: Some systems may already be moving in a positive direction, but an intervention can help accelerate that change.
Opportunistic: In the opportunistic model, the program lays the groundwork for change, but the outcomes will be entirely constrained by the context.
Stabilizing: In some situations, we are working to prevent further decline within the system, to disrupt a “vicious cycle,” and/or to hold the system steady until the opportunity arises for positive change. In the stabilizing model, there is no measurable change to the outcome value throughout the course of the program.
Preventative: Perhaps the opposite of an opportunistic model, in this model the program lays the groundwork to strengthen the status quo and prevent certain events with the goal of having no change in the outcome.
Palliative: One of the realities of working within a systems context is that, occasionally, systems fail with no recourse. The intervention, in these cases, may be focused on slowing the decline of the system in order to mitigate the effects of the eventual collapse, or to buy time for alternatives to emerge or evolve. The palliative model may appear to show a negative relationship between the intervention and the outcomes — that the program is actually doing harm — unless we consider the counterfactual or the historical trendline.
Read the full article about the six models for understanding impact in funding democracy by Liz Ruedy at Democracy Fund.
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