The Importance of Questions

by Susan Valentine

Some of the most rewarding work I have done in both nonprofits and for profits has centered on questions. I realized fairly early on in my career that being comfortable with not knowing all the answers and with asking questions was a plus. I often heard from colleagues after meetings or in whispers during them: “Glad you asked that. I was clueless but didn’t want to admit it.”

Another aspect of questions that has evolved throughout my career has to do with ending up managing staff whose expertise far-surpassed mine. In those instances, honing questioning skills was instrumental in my ability to be conversant and to get to the heart of an issue, though not a content or knowledge specialist.

But the most powerful aspect of questions that I have come to respect relates to evaluation and impact. It is indeed the “so what?” question. I have found it most useful in my work with nonprofits. [In my for profit work, I think the key question has been “why?” uses most often in root cause discussions and in proposal reviews related to choosing one approach over another.]

Especially for nonprofits whose work is undergirded by a theory of change – usually the case – the ability to answer the “so what?” question is critical. And, in order to do so, being smart about how data is gathered and analyzed to support findings is also critical. I think too often people believe they do not have the money to put into database design or research and stop short of being able to quantify/qualify impact. While all nonprofits could use money to boost infrastructure and ensure robust systems, the reality is simply pondering the “so what “question before and during project work goes a long way and costs little. In fact, not asking is can cost a lot!

What do I mean? Well, in this difficult time funding time especially, donors and funders rightfully want to know how we know an approach is valid, how we can show impact, what impact and outcomes really exist.

Anecdotal stories of life changing experiences felt by consumers of nonprofit work are always touching and impactful. But data really does talk. And increasingly the ability to differentiate what we are doing through concrete answers to the “so what” question is a winning ticket. Adding to that a compelling story and the value of the work is often increased even more.

So, take a moment to look at your mission. Think about the underlying theory of change (simplistically, if this, then that). Consider how you can best show positive impact. Test yourself by asking “so what?” As in:

  • We help people become first time homeowners.
  • OK, so what?
  • Well, moving from renting to owning is a powerful transition.
  • OK, so what? How come? How will you know if moving into a house is a good thing for the first time homeowner? Just because they moved in?
  • Well, they couldn’t have moved in without getting their finances in order.
  • OK, how was that accomplished?
  • Well, they moved in after taking financial literacy classes and preparing a reasonable budget?
  • OK, did you help them with that? So what?
  • Yes, we offered the classes. The classes helped them develop a plan which helped them get out of debt.
  • Great. But, that gets them into house. Then what?
  • We plan to track how they are doing over the next 18 months and to be available with some post-homeowner training.
  • OK, so what?
  • Well, first time homeownership might be tricky for folks who haven’t had to be concerned with maintenance and upkeep. We want to increase their chances of success and also be available to help them tinker with their budget as need.
  • OK, but even if they can manage their finances, what about measuring the impact of the move? Are you planning on measuring that? For instance whether their quality of life changed (and how would you define that?) or if their children do better in school? Or, did the homeowners self-esteem change due to the accomplishment?
  • Etc.

A possible conclusion: People who choose to take advantage of our first time homeowner programs become first time homeowners through taking financial literacy and debt reduction programs. We work with them to assist in the development of realistic budgets and we remain available to them following their transition into a new home, offering maintenance workshops and budget reviews. We also have grants that allow us to measure the changes in the quality of life surrounding the move into a home. Through periodic interviews over an 18 month period of time we track such issues as feelings about safety, improved levels of confidence, relationship between time in home and children’s school performance, etc. Over the last three years, 22 people have moved into new homes and the data we have collected indicates that 78 % of the homeowners feel safer in their new neighborhoods; 85% feel an increased sense of self-esteem; and children’s school performance has improved in 17 of the 22 households.

The bottom line: Adopt the question “so what?” as an internal anthem for use when evaluating projects and when considering what projects to do and how best to track them. Doing so will not only go a long way to ensuring the ability to quantify positive impact, but also to ensuring donors and funders can easily see how their investment will make a difference.

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