Bright Idea: A California Foundation Aims for High Quality Youth Programs

Photograph of a young woman with young people training at computers.

Having the time to take a hard look at how you do things may seem like a luxury at youth-serving organizations. But a San Francisco foundation is trying to change that for a handful of nonprofits that serve runaway and homeless youth.

The John Burton Foundation’s Homeless Youth Capacity Building Project launched its yearlong Performance Management Training Series in 2011 with a cohort of seven programs serving counties with the highest rates of youth homelessness in southern California. The groups received professional development for staff, and training and coaching on the performance management approach to improving program quality. They also got $1,500 to spend on training, coaching, software or other purchases that might improve their ability to serve young people well. A second cohort of nonprofits from the San Francisco area began in December 2012.

“Our goal is to enable small to medium-sized organizations to better understand the daily activities in their programs, to see challenges and address them,” says Oscar Wolters-Duran, who coordinates the capacity building project. The training series was funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service, as part of its nationwide strategy to build nonprofit capacity in performance management.

Here are three things the series emphasizes:

Customer service—Wolters-Duran says that programs should be asking a series of questions like: Are client-staff interactions high quality and welcoming? Do youth feel comfortable? Are curricula engaging and do they addresses what youth need to be successful? Do staff have a youth-centered focus? Do they take time to assess youth needs?

“We’re really looking at assessing and evaluating not so much the outcomes, though that’s still important,” he says, “but assessing the quality of the activities and programs that lead to the outcomes. Without that high quality, it’s a lot more challenging to reach those outcomes.”

A learning organization—Performance management works best when an organization’s leaders let staff take responsibility for assessing the quality of their own work and identifying areas for improvement, Wolters-Duran says. Staff should feel comfortable trying new things without fear of being blamed if they fail.

“It’s a day-to-day staff-driven process that enables staff to understand what’s working and to be able to create experiments to try new things to continuously improve the quality,” he says. Some of the things they try are going to fail, and that’s ok. But it’s that effort to make small or large changes and observe if that change has an impact that we think creates high-quality programs.”

Theory of change—A theory of change is a tool for program planning and evaluation. It works backward from a goal, describing the ways a program will reach its desired long-term outcomes.

Developed with input from staff, the theory of change becomes the roadmap for the organization, Wolters-Duran says. “We need to make sure that that roadmap is in place, and that it’s the right roadmap. That way you can change direction if something is not working.”

More Information

We asked Wolters-Duran to recommend resources for youth workers interested in learning more about performance management. Here are his picks:

Continuous Program Improvement Tools
Eight worksheets, including one for creating a theory of change, developed by the Homeless Youth Capacity Building Project and Los Angeles Center for Nonprofit Management.

The Center for What Works
This website has standardized outcomes useful for many types of youth-serving organizations.

Usable Knowledge Logic Model Training
A tutorial for creating a logic model – a key tool in performance management for nonprofits.

Strengthening Nonprofits - Unleashing Teams: A New Approach to Performance Management (PDF, 951KB)
A comprehensive guide to performance management.

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