Cleaning Out Our Closets

By    Aug 11, 2013

Photo: …love Maegan via Flickr

Recently I was cleaning my closet and came across several  items that no longer fit well or had long  since gone out of style – yes, I am either “that old” or styles change rapidly, take your pick.  I wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of those clothes.  I am an organized and reasoned person so what was holding me back?

And then I began to wonder if programs are like clothes in our closets, which was a great distraction because it kept me from dealing with the problem at hand.  But think about it: we buy things that reflect who we are or want to be and that coordinate in some way.  Sometimes, we buy on impulse without thinking through how the purchase will work with other items in our wardrobe. Over time, we keep buying but not necessarily retiring anything until our closets are stuffed, our dresser drawers won’t close and there are piles of clothing in a dark corner.

And yet, we tell ourselves maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  We have something for every occasion.  We are prepared for anything.  All we have to do is devote resources to maintenance – more space to organize everything and money and time to keep things clean.

At some point, and maybe through an intervention involving family and friends, we realize we can no longer go on adding without subtracting.  Over time we’ve lost that feeling of wardrobe cohesiveness and well-dressed happiness. In its place is guilt that we’ve wasted money and a growing inability to make sense of how everything fits together. We have avoided making difficult and perhaps emotional decisions and find that our names are being bandied about as candidates for a reality TV show.

Clothing analogy aside, perhaps you’ve experienced something like this with programs over time at your organization – many, many programs and too few resources to support them, where any move to change or end any one of them may seem haphazard and eccentric.  Staff directly related  to the programs view change as a possible threat to their jobs, donors who have become attached for a variety of reasons feel their trust has been broken, and leaders in turn avoid potentially difficult and emotional debates by dividing resources to programs equally rather than by their impact. Perhaps what is really going on is that we aren’t regularly evaluating each of our programs and that we lack the criteria to frame productive conversations around what stays, what changes and what goes.

What if we all took time – right now – to consider and make some changes?  Before we even think about creating a new program, let’s define a clear and compelling need that will drive the choice to do a program and how best to develop that program using our resources.  Let’s create a picture of what success looks like that will form a basis for ongoing evaluation. Let’s actually evaluate programs regularly and strategically – using the information learned to reorder, reorganize or retire as needed.  And let’s allocate our limited resources towards impact and not by dividing it evenly across all programs.

The following questions may be useful to consider when evaluating a program – new or existing.  As with any process, program evaluation needs to include key stakeholders: the program director, front line staff, key funders or donors and, of course, those served by the program.  Through explicit measurement and regular conversations, we can gain perspective on our program portfolio and increase our impact.

Why are we doing the program?

  • Mission – does it contribute to our mission?
  • Customer – who is the target customer and what needs are we serving?
  • Competition – why are we best suited to do the program? And will funders / buyers recognize this?

How well is the program performing against its potential?

  • Where does this program fall in our overall organization priorities?
  • Are we devoting the necessary financial and human resources towards making this program a success? If not, why not?
  • How will the program be funded – initially and over time (if applicable)?
  • Is the program achieving the outcomes set for it?

And me and my closet?  Well, in the end, I decided with strong encouragement from my friends that any clothing fitting my personal look strategy – that is it makes me look good and not frumpy – would stay otherwise it had to go.

What would closet organizing look like to you and your organization?