The importance of a plain question

The Importance of a Plain Question

In over 25 years of delivering social research and evaluation, I have found Mark Twain’s aphorism – “a plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities” – frequently holds true. So, in this month’s blog, I will explore the importance of a clearly defined question and a well-presented answer.

At GtD we relish the opportunity of using our social impact analytics to help our clients understand the perplexities of their programs and interventions. Perplexities such as, why a well-conceived intervention is not working as expected? Is it a break down in the implementation of a planned intervention, such as the lack of front-line staff or poor engagement with clients? Or has there been a change in the local context, such as an employer making redundancies or the closure of a key service?

As Twain suggests, in addressing these perplexities we first need to have a “plain question”, in other words a question that is both simply phrased and clearly addresses a problem or opportunity faced by an organization. With government clients, their evaluation questions are often pre-defined by policy and research colleagues and are set out clearly in the Request for Proposal (RFP) or an Invitation to Tender (ITT). In such cases our challenge is to propose the most suitable method to provide a plain answer.

I will come to those suitable methods in a moment. Before I do, I want to say that it is equally rewarding to work with clients who have not been able to articulate the “plain question” before contacting us. In those instances, we will work with them to help define the question that needs to be answered. This might involve doing a series of descriptive analyses of their data to refine a general abstract issue to the point where the plain question (or questions) emerge.

Once there is consensus on the question, we can then decide the best way to resolve any perplexities. Our Measure package helps cut through any confusion by identifying the data needed to explain the outcomes that an organization is seeking to deliver, while our Learn package uses sophisticated predictive analytics to help clients to understand how the performance of a current intervention can be improved. Ultimately our Prove package provides the impact evaluation that provides the plain answer of “did it work?” and “was it worth it?”.

Admittedly these packages – Measure, Learn, Prove – are grounded in rigorous method and complex analyses. That is important, but we would fail in providing a “plain answer” if we did not convey these complexities simply and clearly. Here we take time to know our client and their preferred mode of communication: a conventional report, a digital dashboard or a presentation. Whatever we do, we need to know that the client understands the answer and has a way of executing any recommendations that flow from that.

If your organization needs to address some perplexing questions, then please contact us. We will help you find the plain answer.

Non-Profits and the Measurement of What Matters

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really, Want

Non-Profits and the Measurement of What Matters

Hard to believe that it is 25 years since the Spice Girls recorded “Wannabe”, and with it the launch of the “girl power” phenomenon. A catchy tune for all of us “Dad Dancers” out there, but what has it to do with (the more serious) topic of social impact measurement and non-profits?

Well, at the time Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Scary and Baby were storming the charts, I was settling into my job as a government researcher with the British civil service. 1995 was just before the dawn of New Labour’s managerial approach to public services, but already government was demanding greater efficiency and effectiveness. So, while the rest of the world was going all “zig-a-zig-ah”, I was co-authoring my first research paper, the rather ponderous “Managing the Courts Effectively: the reason for adjournments and delays in the magistrates’ courts in England & Wales”.

For the next 20 years, much of the evaluation work that my colleagues and I completed was framed by this managerialism. While working our way through the elusive “what works?” agenda, it became clear that the answers were of interest to government bean counters rather than the general public. So, “what works?” tended to be about government agencies doing things more swiftly, reducing costs to the Exchequer or moderating the politically troublesome issues of youth crime and anti-social behaviour.  While reducing crime in a neighbourhood, and bringing offenders to justice more quickly, remain laudable aims, were they what was “really, really wanted”?

When launching GtD in the US five years ago, we deliberately sought to partner with local and national non-profits. Not surprisingly they see things differently than government, and with that their focus is entirely on the people they serve. I have said it before, but our best non-profit clients know what they are about, and I have remarked that on visiting their offices there is a real energy to their business and commitment to their clients.  That is not to say that there is no tension between a non-profit’s wider goals and the narrower commitments made to a funder, but the best non-profits jealously guard their own ethos and interests.

I saw this first when working with the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta. Its Connect to Success program does vital work in helping young refugees get into employment, training, or education. However, it was clear that for a humanitarian organization the measures of success had to be more than the number of jobs found or college places achieved.  So, our evaluation also measures the wellbeing of the young people and their general satisfaction with their lives in the USA. Similarly, for the public defender organization Gideon’s Promise their metrics of success did not include reductions in convictions or fewer custodial sentences, but something more radical: the quality of the relationship between the public defenders and the clients they represent. Jack and I are currently getting to grips with a new rural health initiative in Georgia. The initiative seeks to tackle the social determinants of health, but it is important that local people should have a say in what good health outcomes look like for their own community.

Of course, non-profits must be diligent in demonstrating their economy, efficiency and effectiveness, but at GtD we also want to measure what our clients believe to be most important to them. This is all part of what we call our “social impact journey”. Before we start measuring the more obvious outcomes, we will take the time to investigate what an organization really wants to achieve, even when it finds that difficult to articulate clearly.  This is all part of what we call the client’s theory of change and it forms the basis for us to find new and exciting ways to measure a client’s true outcomes. If you want to learn more about what your organization can do to measure “what it really, really wants”, why not join our free webinar on October 29th. We will tell you more about GtD’s social impact journey, our packages of “Measure”, “Learn” and “Prove”, and what the next steps are to measure your social impact – definitively.

Join us for a social impact journey seminar

Book Your Winter Getaway – Now!

The holiday season seems to be a time for journeying. As the school nativity plays remind us, the first Christmas saw the little donkey carry Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the “star of wonder” led the Three Wise Men to the stable. Today, thousands of British and American travelers will drive and fly home to be with family for the holidays.  And, no sooner is the festive period over, than hundreds of us will be heading to the ski slopes and beaches for a dose of much-needed sunlight. Winter is, indeed, a time for journeying.

At this time GtD’s London-based team invite you to join us on a journey. Unlike the Winter Getaways you see advertised in the press and television, we are offering to take you on a journey to understand your organization’s impact on the communities and people it serves.  At GtD we call this your “social impact journey” and we will travel with you to gather data, unlock its meaning and use it to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work.  Each of these is a stopping point on a single journey.

If you are interested in learning more, then you are warmly invited to join a free seminar on Wednesday, 8th January in London. For more details and how to book your place for this event, please go to

GtD’s “Winter Getaway” doesn’t promise you golden beaches or pristine snow, but it will give you a good start to the new year as you and your organization embark on your social impact journey.  We look forward to seeing you there.