Measuring Success: What Kind Of Yardstick Do You Use?




lovely photo from diane


post by Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer




Are all of the front desk assistants of the National Endowment for the Arts pregnant?

Some things you simply cannot avoid wondering about if you happen to be outnumbered by young women, hands cradling their swollen bellies, waddling around the hallowed halls of the NEA.  “It is a very busy time.  Everyone is going from one meeting to another,” murmured Vanessa, a slender woman – not pregnant – who greeted us at the offices for local arts agencies where we  were scheduled for a meeting.

This is our yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, a time for me to personally touch base with the folks who shepherd our grant requests through the labrynth of their panel process and with whom I have become good friends with over the years.  I like the train ride down to DC, wandering wide eyed through Union Station and stopping to say a quick hello to everyone before they duck into yet another meeting.

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the lovely ladies working for local arts agencies

“We love when people come to see us, especially now that our travel budgets have been cut.  I wish more people did,” said one director to me who I caught grabbing a quick lunch at the Indian take out place.  I have to admit I don’t understand why more nonprofits don’t make it a priority to visit funders.  Every time I sit down with the directors, it is a chance for me to let them know what we are doing, what we intend to apply for and very often I will gain a valuable insight or piece of advice that will make our proposal rock.  If you want to be a successful grantwriter, consider this:  there is an art to writing for money.

This time, the big thing is innovation and transformation.  They want something that presents new learning or insights.  Something replicable and measurable.

“What does that look like to you? ”  I asked.  “Can you give me an example?”

Answer the Question, Goddamnit!

The director smiled.  “We talk about that a lot  The answer to your question is that we will know it when we see it.”

This is an answer?

They don’t know what a successful innovative and transformative project is.  And if they don’t know that, they cannot describe it.  Or measure it.

LIke many other funding opportunities out there, the NEA wants to see their dollar make an important impact.  Something that changes and transforms lives.  A model that can be replicated in other places.  And it falls to the artists and creative thinkers to visualize a project that can do all that and, most of all, deliver such an experience that allows the vision of the funders to bundle up the act and set up shop in another place.

It is a competitive category.  We need to leave no doubt among the grant panelists that yes, we are worthy of funding.  Why?  Because we transform lives.

How do we do this?

By creating a picture of the success we intend to create and a space for a funder to feel part of something that is moving towards real and tangible goals with benchmarks that can feed back into the process.


Do They Know?

Anyone who tells you “they will know it when they see it” has no idea what “it” is, which actually is a very good thing.  It is an admission of not knowing what they want to achieve, only knowing why.  This is a very good thing.  It tells me funders are willing to be outcomes focused and open to anything  as long as it is new in philosophy and that it changes something. To make art make a difference.



What You Should Know

For us, transformation has to be demonstrated by what an artist does with the skills, learnings and confidence gained by being part of what Queens Council on the Arts provides.  It is no longer and, in my book, never was enough to describe success as well attended events or satisfied customers.  How do I know this and why do I believe so strongly in this comes from simply watching the body language, especially the eyes, of the directors.  Their eyes did not light up when we talked about how happy the artists were to be part of the workshops, and to learn new skills.  We will have to create a vivid image of success that we will set as our goal which will be the artist as a confident, engaged, creative professional whose art can change the world.  Our yardstick will be the gradual changes their art and their actions cause in the world.

Here’s an excerpt from Marion Conway’s summary of the 2013 Annual Letter by Bill Gates:

In the last year Beth Kanter has been talking about the importance of measurement to the networked nonprofit.  Now Bill Gates opens his 2013 Annual letter talking about it with a quote from William Rosen’s  “The Most Powerful Idea in the World.”  Bill writes: “Without feedback from precise measurement, Rosen writes, invention is “doomed to be rare and erratic.” With it, invention becomes “commonplace.”……..But in the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal-in a feedback loop similar to the one Rosen describes. This may seem pretty basic, but it is amazing to me how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.


There, I said it.  And I believe it.

What does success look like, move like, sound like for what you do?

This way of thinking could be catching.  Unlike pregnancy, thank God.





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Hoong Yee




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