A Juggling Act: Data, Outcomes and Youth Development

As a nonprofit in the youth development field, there are often many objectives to juggle. They often require some debate and conversation to get it right. One particular juggling act is balancing the need for data collection and outcomes with the need to remain open-minded and youth centered. That is, it’s important to approach everyone as an individual and not a “number” as it is often said. This debate recently came to light with the development of some new programming.

For example, when starting a new program, it’s truly important to allow the facts to speak. It’s important to not bring a lot of assumptions, especially those made from previous programming, about how the youth will respond. We should allow the solutions, and even the exact target population, to emerge. Individual circumstances should guide the work and this can take time. People have different needs. Every city is different. Every school is different. You can never be quite sure.

Yet it’s equally important to have a clear outcome, which will help steer things in the right direction. It’s important to have research and use the existing evidence as much as possible. It’s also necessary to consider how things will translate into numbers and how it might translate into a data system or a report, as much as no one wants to turn someone into a number.

Clearly, the roles people have play a big part in their approach and where they land in the debate. Within our organization, we recognize that we are truly fortunate to have both of these perspectives in one place. The youth, in our opinion, really benefit from a program model that has been created and analyzed utilizing multiple perspectives.

There is, however, one thing we all agree on: A strict, linear approach isn’t going to happen. The youth we support have very complex lives and it is absolutely necessary to respect their experiences and allow for a true partnership. Whatever the answer and approach ends up being, it has to retain the deepest respect for the youth. It must be broad enough to allow for all the variations, but narrow enough to provide a sufficient amount of support.

We also all agree that it takes a lot of heart to do this work. Even our most analytic, number driven people wouldn’t be here if they didn’t feel a strong connection to our mission, and more importantly, to our students. This work takes compassion and patience from everyone. It also requires courage because we have to advocate—at all levels—for students.

There is perhaps one last thing we all agree on: We have to laugh and enjoy our time with the students (and each other).

So where do we stand as an organization? In short, we’re committed to drawing from both perspectives and incorporating them into our work. What this means for us is that we have to be open and collaborative when starting something new. Communication and respect are the cornerstones. We also have to be open to growing and the occasional revision. We have to be open to a kind of cognitive diversity where different people come together with differing viewpoints and approaches.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.