The reasonable consequences of our unreasonable expectations

Organizations are often tasked with making bold predictions about future achievement. But as the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness illustrates, most of the predictions we make in the social sector are based on hope and little else.

Good predictions are based on sound models and historical data. And before you think the concept of modeling is too technical or outside the realm of the social sector, I would argue that every organization has a model. It’s called a theory of change.

Publicly traded companies make revenue predictions that investors analyze to determine whether to buy, hold, or dump stock. Social sector agencies are similarly asked to make predictions about what changes they are going to create in the world and how they are going to do it.

Companies have a lot to lose when they fail to meet projected targets. Analysts rip companies apart and investors lose confidence not only in companies’ predictive abilities, but in management and future viability as well.

But in the social sector we are rarely evaluated based on our predictions. As a result we shoot for the moon, hit the dirt, and call it a success. And while all this unreasonable ambition sounds good, and makes for catchy campaign titles, does it help us advance public welfare?

Our outlandishly high expectations and horribly unfounded predictions undermine donors’ faith in our ability to create real social change. Indeed, it’s seems an unspoken truth of the social sector is that if your theory of change doesn’t draw a straight line between your local intervention and world peace, then you’re just not doing it right.

What’s wrong with setting reasonable objectives? Why not have a theory of change that relates what you do to what you can actually accomplish; instead of relating what you do to some fantastical notion of what you wish might happen?

Instead of spinning increasingly more ludicrous stories, we’d be better served aiming lower and actually hitting our targets. That way we could accurately account for what we do, measure our impact, and iterate on our interventions.

The byproduct of reasoned predictions based on realistic theories of change would be something far better than stories that make donor’s hearts swell. We’d have stories people could actually believe.