Week 69: Knowing when to fold ‘em

Sometimes, you just have to surrender. Yesterday, our lovable 2-year old, 100-pound “puppy” Mac bit (yet) another dog. After extensive interventions and months of training, we made the difficult decision to put him to sleep. My 3 year old remains hopeful that Mac will be home for his presents at Christmas.

Making difficult decisions about when to quit are hard. Really hard. I am hard-nosed and determined. I love to train for marathons. Take on too much. Push myself. And then, despite my personal efforts, I still sometimes have to give up. I have a memory of running a marathon after taking Nyquil because I had the flu. I somehow thought finishing, despite the terrible toll on my body, was better than quitting.

I think lessons about examining circumstances, prior efforts, and data to make a decision to “fold ‘em” is a crucial lesson when working with programs as well. So often, as evaluators, we work with clients investing thousands or millions of dollars and precious weeks of stakeholders’ time to push a program to be successful. Sometimes those efforts work. Sometimes staying the course makes sense. And then, sometimes, it doesn’t.

As evaluators, questions to ask clients when examining their lack of intended outcomes might include:

  1. Are you continuing to push for a program’s continuation because of the personal stake you have in the game? Is this about your ego? Your career? The effort you’ve invested?
  2. What political implications are there for continuing to invest in an unsuccessful program? What implications are there for closing shop? How can you use program/community data to inform this question?
  3. Is the number of people impacted/participating in the program significantly more than the number of people invested in implementing the program? In other words, are 10 people working to keep a program that serves 30 people afloat?
  4. Has the program moved (or have plans to move) from measuring inputs to measuring outcomes? Examine what outcomes have resulted from the program. If a program is only counting beans, efficiently move to a system that examines impact to determine viability.
  5. Are there other programs or entities that could/would fill the gap if the program no longer existed? Is it possible that a particular program is not succeeding because something else already exists, there is a lack of trust, or the timing is not right?

This week, as we mourn the loss of Mac, I’ll still put on my running shoes and train for the next race. I’ll look forward to what is next and remember that the next chapter will hold something new. There is freedom in knowing we made the right decision, even when it was hard.

KELLEY’S USEFUL TIP: While our ability to work as evaluators is dependent on programs staying in business, ethically, we need to keep our eyes open to the possibility of an organization sunsetting when they are no longer able to produce the outcomes they have worked hard to achieve.