Lessons Learned from our Funding Recipients

Our funding reports emphasize self-reflection and focus more on what has been learned rather than on hard metrics or outputs. We understand and recognize that our funding recipients are the ones closest to the work on the ground, their communities, and the people they serve. Therefore, we look to our funding recipients to help us better understand what is going on. However, we also believe we have a role to play in facilitating lessons learned across our funding recipients based on our bird’s eye view of what is happening among the projects and programs we support. From the funding reports submitted to us over the years, we have identified a few high-level insights that we hope will be of use to others. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is one more way in which we hope we can promote knowledge sharing and support the broader career development sector to succeed.

Plan for relationship building

When funding recipients begin a new or next phase of a program or project where outreach to new and diverse stakeholders is needed, it is necessary to take the time to do this right. Oftentimes, we hear from our funding recipients that they wished they had more time to reach out to and engage community members, clients, or partners. This is hard work, but projects and programs that seem to have the greatest success value the importance of building trust in their relationships with those in their network and community first and foremost before planning and doing particular activities. There is no one way to do this and it can often involve some iteration. However, as a starting point (where appropriate), we encourage our funding recipients to budget and plan for relationship building in their applications and project plans.

“If we were starting again, we would also build in more time for consultation, with the understanding that buy-in is built through true engagement — listening and revising, being transparent in the work, and open to critique.” ~ Funding recipient

Resource: 12 Critical Points on Stakeholder Engagement from the Sweet Briar Experience — Nonprofit Quarterly

Create space to learn from others

Most of our funding recipients take to heart the importance of gathering feedback from the people and communities they aim to serve. However, gathering feedback isn’t something that should only be done in service of completing reports to funders. Rather, ongoing feedback should help with the ultimate goal of delivering or improving the service, program, or project. This means creating the space for staff, volunteers, community members, partners, etc. to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts even when those conversations can sometimes be difficult.

“We need to focus on developing a system for capturing the qualitative feedback and conversations we have with our [leaders and participants]. We found many of their conversations and anecdotes very insightful and informing, identifying various community development needs and gaps.” ~ Funding recipient

Resource: Creating a safe space — My-Peer Toolkit

Put youth first

Many organizations that work with youth are doing so not only in the capacity of youth participating in a program. Rather, youth are also part of the program design and have input and opportunities to share their thoughts on an ongoing basis. For instance, one organization runs a town hall every month where youth are invited to come together in a safe space and share their experience and thoughts for how to improve the program, while staff are expected to attend and listen. In addition, when working with youth who may have additional barriers to participation, such as the need to travel from further away, consider building into your budget the ability to reimburse participants for taking public transportation. Lastly, think about ways you can create economic opportunities for youth. One funding recipient has created a leadership role for some participants where older youth help in the program delivery and can act as mentors for younger youth all while earning some extra money and contributing to their resume.

“If you value and prioritize accessibility, plan/budget accordingly for transportation reimbursement — it is an absolute necessity and a major cost!” ~ Funding recipient

Remember the small steps along way

It’s easy to overlook the small successes along the way that lead to a participant, client, or service user reaching their goal whether it be graduation, finding employment, or completing a milestone. However, many of our funding recipients note that, while these big successes are exciting and get a lot of praise, they don’t always tell the full story. Our funding recipients often tell us that they work with people who are challenged by many barriers that are not always easy to see. These include both systemic barriers such as racism as well as social and emotional barriers such as a lack of confidence or managing stress. Celebrating progress and acknowledging the small steps in a person’s journey can be an important part in a program or project design.

“It is important to not lose sight of the small successes that help to build towards these larger goals. This may include reduced anxieties, enhanced self-confidence and connection with culture. Throughout all aspects of the program, the resiliency of participants and [organization] staff are continuously demonstrated.” ~ Funding recipient

Resource: What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Extend your network

Some of our funding recipients noted that there was often more to the issue they were trying to address than what they initially thought. For instance, an organization that developed a great employment training program and had great feedback from their participants, nonetheless realized that this was not translating into as much long-term employment for their participants as hoped. Staff began to think more about who the relevant local employers might be and whether they could be engaged further in the program design to better reflect what skills these employers would need from future employees. This led to doing more outreach to employers — some of whom they had no prior relationship with — which led to more awareness for their work as well as better training programs for their participants. In short, when things don’t always go as planned, think about who else (either in your network or not) might be good to talk to.

“We need to think more about how to increase our recruitment to our program. This may mean revisiting our client profile, how we do outreach to partners, and the messaging we use.” ~ Funding recipient

Resource: Using Outreach to Increase Access — Community Tool Box

Be flexible

Flexibility is a key ingredient for many successful programs. This includes building flexibility into the design stage of your program or project before you officially launch. In other words, while planning and developing schedules, materials, curriculum, etc., is important, it may also be useful to build in some buffer time into the length of the program or project to adjust if necessary. Programs that are able to adapt to changing circumstances whether they be changing labour market conditions, growing demand for your services, or the emergence of new opportunities tend to have the most long-term success. Flexibility means incorporating some of the other lessons on this page such as the ability to adjust based on feedback from participants. However, considering your internal processes is also important to understand whether you are able to be more responsive to your clients or service users.

“Regarding the project in general, programs need to be made flexible to be able to adjust to labour market changes. This means developing a strong base curriculum with opportunities for sector specific additions. This will be key to expansion and customization to local employment needs. When looking specifically at clients, participants need multiple opportunities to restart and succeed and programs need to have the latitude to respond to individual need and circumstance.” ~ Funding recipient

Set goals and evaluate

Evaluation is an important part of any learning organization and can take on many different forms. This means going beyond counting outputs such as how many events were held, how many likes a social media post received, or how many people were served, and focusing more on what was learned and why something worked or didn’t. It should be used to inform action. Its central purpose is to help organizations to do their work better and achieve their mission. Figuring out what approach, methodology, or tools to use should begin with a conversation about what it is you and your partners want to learn.

We have also learned to embed developmental evaluation into our work to ensure we take time to pause, reflect, and pivot if necessary. This too, can slow things down, but it makes the focus of the work and the choices we make more intentional.” ~ Funding recipient

Resource: Learning Together: Five Important Discussion Questions to Make Evaluation Useful — Ontario Nonprofit Network

We are agnostic when it comes to how our funding recipients do evaluation and believe that whatever approach an organization chooses should work for them. That being said, here are a few specific resources, approaches, and tools that have been used by some of our funding recipients:

  • Theory of Change and Logic models. Logic models and theories of change offer “an explanation of how the activities of a program, project, policy, network or event are expected to contribute to particular results in the short-term and longer-term.”
  • ESAT (Employability Skills Assessment Tool). “The Employability Skills Assessment Tool (ESAT) provides a framework and quantitative assessment methodology for the development of nine employability skills: motivation, attitude, accountability, time management, stress management, presentation, teamwork, adaptability and confidence.”
  • The Adult Hope Scale. “The adult hope scale contains 12 items. Four items measure pathways thinking, four items measure agency thinking, and four items are fillers. Participants respond to each item using a 8-point scale ranging from definitely false to definitely true and the scale takes only a few minutes to complete.”
  • Developmental Evaluation. Developmental Evaluation “is an evaluation approach that can assist social innovators develop social change initiatives in complex or uncertain environments… it facilitates real-time, or close to real-time, feedback to program staff thus facilitating a continuous development loop.”
  • Most Significant Change. “The Most Significant Change (MSC) approach involves generating and analysing personal accounts of change and deciding which of these accounts is the most significant – and why.”
  • Social Return on Investment. “Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a framework for measuring and accounting for this much broader concept of value; it seeks to reduce inequality and environmental degradation and improve well-being by incorporating social, environmental and economic costs and benefits.”
  • Design Thinking. “Design thinking is centered on innovating through the eyes of the end user and as such encourages in-the-field research that builds empathy for people, which results in deeper insights about their unmet needs.”

Have an important lesson or example to share? Contact Ben Liadsky (Ben[at]counselling.net)