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No Work Is Insignificant

Mary Marczak, Research and Evaluation Specialist

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’ve been thinking how his words ring true for our work at the Center for Family Development. We go about our work every day to “uplift humanity.”

From Fresh Spectrum's 6 Logic Model Cartoons.
Some of us might say, “Isn’t it good enough that we are doing good work and have good intentions?” To those who invest millions of dollars to support our work, the answer is “No. You need to show that our investment is making a difference — that it’s having an impact on the health and well-being of our children, families and communities.”

But that puts us all in a conundrum. It’s difficult showing impact when we are mostly addressing complex, interconnected “wicked problems” So, how can we meet this challenge? One way to better demonstrate our impact under these conditions is to tell a collective story of our combined efforts. As I write this blog, Family Development is involved with three major collective impact-story telling efforts:

  • The Battelle Report: Battelle is the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization. Several years ago, the 12-state Extension North Central Region leaders in agriculture contracted with Battelle to analyze the economic impact of agricultural programming in Extension. Since that report, the North Central Region Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) directors (Karen Shier and her counterparts) got approval from the Extension Directors in all 12 states to support another contract with Battelle tell the “impact story” of FCS programs. Anne Kemerer, a key scientist at Battelle, is leading this effort, which requires each state to provide three full years of documentation of impact reports, vitas, publications, studies, federal report data, budgets and more. Anne is currently writing the report and at last hearing we should see something this spring. This is giving me goose bumps just thinking about it!!

  • The Most Significant Change Project: The “Most Significant Change” (or “Monitoring Without Indicators”) technique was developed by Rick Davies, Ph.D., a UK-based independent monitoring and evaluation consultant. As described in a 2005 guide he wrote with Australian colleague Jessica Dart, Ph.D., the technique is a form of participatory monitoring and evaluation that involves many stakeholders in deciding the change to explore and in analyzing the data. Essentially the process involves collection of significant change stories from the field level and systematic selection of the most significant of these stories by panels of designated stakeholders or staff. Then each group sends the selected stories up to the next level of hierarchy, where the number of stories is whittled down through a transparent process.

    Dean Bev Durgan has funded a half-time graduate student to pilot this technique in two Minnesota Extension regions with the support of Bob Byrnes, Extension Director of Field Operations, and Extension regional directors. The Central Region was the first to volunteer, and its stories are now being compiled into a report. I’m pleased to say that four of the top six stories are from FD, so watch for the Central Region report soon! The Northeast Region will be next, with story gathering beginning soon.

  • Annual Federal Report: Each year, the research and evaluation staff from every center work with Joyce Hoelting, Assistant Director of the Center for Community Vitality, to pull together an Extension-wide report for submission to our federal funders. This report includes outputs, such as the number of participants and volunteers in our programs, educational events held, publications, and professionals trained, as well as outcomes, such as percentages of people who gained knowledge, skills, and efficacy through our educational events, for a calendar year. Increasingly, our federal funders are requesting impact stories with strong evidence built from systematic studies of our programs. I’m happy to say our center has results from several rigorous evaluation and impact studies this year! In the next couple weeks while I try to combine the data from ALL our program efforts in 2014, you may hear me complaining and acting out — like the guy in the cartoon. But remember that it’s all worth it when we can tell our collective impact story!
I realize that many of you have been bugged multiple times to contribute data, stories, and otherwise account for your work as we gather evidence to tell our impact stories. This is a great time to say thank you to all of you for your contributions to our stories. I must say, that our center has a reputation within our state, and now even in Cooperative Extension’s North Central Region, for our ability to document our work and offer evidence of our successes. That kind of recognition can only come when we ALL work together!

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