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The Hard Virtues of ‘Soft’ Program Measurement

The very act of giving feedback on nonprofit programs can predict participant outcomes

Participant feedback is generally pegged as the “softer” leg of nonprofit program measurement compared to quantitative approaches like randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Organizations can view input from users of social products and services more as a “suggestion box” than a critical measure of effectiveness. Meanwhile, the field has long considered third-party evaluations that relegate participants to subjects of a study a gold standard for developing evidence of program outcomes.

However, several new research initiatives aim to show funders and nonprofits that participant feedback has empirical links to hard outcomes. The early returns confirm that organizations that gather feedback from direct participants and their communities to continuously improve their programs and policies are finding that surveys, interviews, and focus groups can do more than surface new ways to interpret quantitative findings and explain the why and how. They can also highlight causal links to past outcomes and, remarkably, provide a proxy for future outcomes.

Two Case Studies

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a criminal justice organization that aims to move paroled men and women into livelihoods with higher job retention and to lower recidivism, offers an example. During its first four decades, CEO (founded in the 1970s as the Vera Institute of Justice) built a reputation for achieving hard measures of success; the data it gathered about program participants showed that the organization meaningfully reduced recidivism for people recently released from prison compared to formerly paroled people who did not participate in its programs.

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