Blog: Susan Westhoff

It's owls and eagles and vultures (oh my!) at the Leslie Science & Nature Center in Ann Arbor. LSNC Executive Director Susan Westhoff writes on transformation at the individual and organizational level and how to measure the intangibles of success.

Numbers Aren't Always a Factor of Success

Every job I've ever had has the same challenge in place – how do you measure "success" when your true job is to open minds, create opportunities, and engage people in something they've perhaps never seen/done/experienced before.  On a personal, purely human level, successful programs to me is truly when a person has that "ah ha" moment where they "get it". Whether it's been music, dance, theater, animals, green living, hiking, etc. – if they suddenly understand why it is important or have a new interest in it – that is success, to me.

However, this is not a real measurable phenomenon. Grants, foundations, even those same everyday folks who just "got it" want to see numbers. How many people came to the event, how many people joined as members, how many people donated... Those numbers tell one part of the truth, but never the true impact of an event.

This was on my mind after one particularly successful trail awareness event in Colorado years ago. Trailfest was our biggest event of the year at work. It's an enormous undertaking, and one that we almost cancelled due to the turmoil of some staff turnover and intense drama. However, the staff felt this was critical to make happen, and I am so delighted we did.

To me, this event was by far the biggest success we have ever had in our history. It was successful because of the impact we clearly had on those who participated, it was successful because of the immense interest clearly demonstrated by the increased walk-through from the locals, it was successful because the remaining staff really pulled together despite a lot of stress and quite recent departures of key staff, and it was successful since we (for the first time ever) broke even on the event. Phew! However, the participant numbers were lower than in past years. So how could I convince board members and donors that lower numbers does not equal unsuccessful event

Then, just this past weekend, we had a similar experience at the Leslie Science & Nature Center.  We held our annual (only our 2nd year now) Camp Open House. This is an opportunity for potential and registered youth and their families to come explore and experience a "taste" of our summer camps.  A completely free program, we were disappointed that only about half of the registered families came. However, I still call the day a success.  Why?  I witnessed the relief on parents' faces as they met some of our camp staff.  I saw parents relax and feel comfortable with the idea of their four or five year old attending their very first camp at LSNC this summer.  I felt the reassurance from parents who felt    their child was high energy, as they heard and saw the fun activities we have on site.

This type of familiarity, comfort and appreciation of our organization is priceless.  Our numbers were low, and there are strategic moves we can make to help on that front. But the impact of our event – the emotional, educational, and philosophical impact turns into individual motivation towards action and involvement with our organization.  I have seen this time and time again.

So how do we communicate this type of success to donors, grantors and board members?  How do we reassure new staff that low numbers don't equal failed attempts?  Stories.  Photos. Testimonials. These are my lifeline and that of the organization.  Stories of people transformed by our organization, whose points of view were changed – who started walking regularly, or taking their kids camping because of a one-hour or one-day program – these are the measurements of our success and we see them every single day.

Numbers are fantastic, always, but those stories are worth their weight in gold.