The Success Equation: A User-Friendly Planning & Impact Assessment Tool

Lauren Silverstein, PHD is the Chief Impact Officer, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. She can be reached here.
So, you want to start assessing the impact of your program or a new initiative. Or perhaps a donor, your boss or the Board of Trustees is saying you need to!  Whatever the case – you’re ready. But how do you get started? 
In this blog, I will introduce you to a foundational tool we use at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. It’s the tool that captures a collective understanding of what our success looks like, conveys how we know if we’ve accomplished it, and the intentional strategies we are undertaking to reach those goals. It’s a tool that serves as a road map, and at times a job description, for key players. 
It’s also the tool we come back to – after the program or the grant cycle or the big event – to answer the questions on everyone’s mind: “How’d we do?”, “Did it work?”, “Was it worth our investment?” Most importantly, it’s the tool that gets revised and evolves as our learning deepens; we reflect on the past to inform where we’re headed. 
This tool is called the Success Equation. I did not invent the Success Equation; I discovered it in Jason Saul’s book The End of Fundraising. I was looking for a standard tool that could be utilized to measure any of our Federation’s allocated dollars, whether it was a partner agency, an internal department, or one of our signature events. Practically speaking, I wanted it to be a tool that wouldn’t scare people.  While many options were in the running, it was my reading of Saul’s book and learning about the Success Equation that signaled that I found the right fit. You can read this article in which Saul introduces the origins of this tool and provides some general guidelines on how to use it.
This is what the Success Equation looks like. You can find an enlarged version here.

This is what a completed one looks like for our Outreach & Engagement Department. You can find an enlarged version here.

Here is a 5-step guide (personalized with Greater MetroWest’s application) that you can follow to implement the Success Equation at your Federation. 
  1. Explain that this is a very simple equation. You don’t have to be good at math. A+B+C = D.
  2. Start with D. This is starting with the end in mind. What do you ultimately want to accomplish? What is the ultimate impact you want this program to have? Note: This statement can be in general terms – the next level of detail and specificity in the following components will clarify how you are defining what otherwise may appear as generic in D. 
    • Application: You can see in our Outreach and Engagement Department’s Success Equation, the D is “raise the next generation of ownership for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ”. “Ownership” can mean different things to different communities or organizations. What we put in the rest of the equation defines what ownership means for our organization.   
  3. Move on to A, B, C. What changes do you need to make to get to D? Is it a change in behavior, condition, or status? These are your outcomes. Without one of them (for example if you didn’t have “A”), achieving D would be nearly impossible. 
    • Application: Outcomes having to do with participating in, developing connections to, and creating a pipeline utilized by Federation were key to raising ownership. Without one of those, it would be very hard to achieve our ultimate impact.
  4. Defining your performance measures: what does success look like for A, B, C? How will I know if I am achieving that outcome? What are my indications of success? What do I need to track, observe or measure to know how well I am achieving that outcome? These are called performance measures. They are your organization’s way of defining success. This will also ensure you are measuring what matters to your organization, as it is aligned with your priority outcomes (which you know are critical to you achieving your ultimate impact). Note: each performance measure should have a “who,”, “how” and “when” attached to it. Who is responsible for getting this data? How is s/he doing it (a survey, a tracking system, etc.)? When does this need to happen (end of year, ongoing, etc.)?
    • Application: To us, increasing participation “looks like” the number of first-time attendees at events as well as new donor accounts. It also looks like new placements on committees, new institutional partners and how often a first-time meeting results in a second touchpoint for that individual. Participation may look different for you. That’s the best part of this tool (and why it’s important to have the right people at the table – see consideration #4 below) – you define what success looks like for each outcome. 
  5. Back all the way in to your strategies. You know what you want to achieve and you know what success will look like if you achieve it, so now you must decide what intentional strategies will take you there. This part can be revealing. Sometimes you already have strategies in place that are aligned with each outcome. Sometimes you realize a key strategy is missing or certain programs or activities you currently run don’t align with any of your priority outcomes. We all only have so many resources – filling in our strategies last (see consideration #1 below) – ensures that these resources are going towards strategies that we know will lead to achieving our outcomes, which will lead to our ultimate impact. 
Key considerations:
  1. It is intentional to start with the end in mind. We often don’t do this. We start planning programs or activities, and then we hope they wind up achieving some sort of goal. Starting with your ultimate impact and priority outcomes helps you to be strategic when designing activities and ensure that what you are measuring is what matters.
  2. Yes, only 3 priority outcomes- A, B, & C. No D, E, F! Why not? They no longer become priorities. I mentioned limited resources above – the more “priorities” we state, the less something is actually a “priority.” Limiting ourselves to actual priorities will ensure quality efforts and not spreading ourselves too thin. 
  3. Language matters. Hours can be spent on finding the “right” word. For a long time, we had the word “leadership” in our Outreach & Engagement’s “D”…it was then pointed out that not everyone can be a “leader” or wants to be one. So, we are not just trying to grow “leadership” – what we ultimately mean by successful engagement is more people to feel ownership. See how that’s different? In turn, it changes our measures and strategies for success.   
  4. Who needs to be at the table? This is a very important question. A worst-case scenario is you are told to assess your program’s impact – you go through the whole success equation process – and then present your findings to certain stakeholders and they say, “but that’s not what we think success means for this program.” Or, staff on the frontlines aren’t bought in to the leadership’s measures of success and so resentment grows between program leadership and staff. Keep in mind that you may need different people at the table for different components. For example, maybe it’s your program staff who know which strategies make most sense to implement for each goal area, but it’s your board who needs to help define what your priority outcomes are (A, B, C).
  5. Don’t forget to use the data! The success equation ensures that even if the underlying driver in setting goals and collecting data was for someone else, that the data collected can also be helpful for you. The process requires a lot of thought and time – make it worth it. Use your data to learn, make pressing decisions and develop strategy. That is the ultimate power of evaluation. 
  6. Leverage your success equation. In one piece of paper, you sum up your program’s story. Our departments and agencies use this same language in their annual reports, visualize this data into their marketing materials and even bring the success equation to donor meetings. You spent a lot of time on this – let the world know!