Achieving impact takes time

It can take five years (or more) to see whether the services you offer are influencing your constituents and their institutions.

When presenting a “turn-around” plan to revitalize a Christian ministry, I was asked by a trustee when the board would know if the plan had worked. Apparently the board had been told of many plans before, but nothing much had hanged and the financial deficits had grown each year.

My answer was not reassuring: “Five years.” The plan included signposts and bench marks to track progress, but I predicted the budget would not be balanced for five years.

Any ministry plan that considers the needs of the constituents and funders and has secure financial support will almost certainly get started well. The program elements will develop over time and will likely face challenges the third time they are offered. At that point, they will require careful assessment and changes in design or marketing.

When an organization wants to impact institutions through multiple programs or services, it takes at least five years to see how the evolving services are adding up. A critical measure of health at five years is the budget. If the organization is not very close to self-sustaining, then it likely will require long-term funding from donors or sponsors.

An even longer view is required to see substantial impact of the organization on an ecology or system. Army generals and business strategist have separately told me that it takes 15 years to have an impact on major challenges.

In December, The New York Times and Fast Company published stories about Sebastian Thrun, one of the key figures in developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and a co-founder of Udacity. In these pieces Thrun expresses concern that the MOOCs are not achieving the educational outcomes that he initially hoped.

The headlines featuring Thrun’s doubts can leave one feeling that something is wrong with his initial idea. But as the articles indicate, setbacks and adjustments are common with innovation. Thrun started taping his first online class in 2011 with a digital camera in his living room. His goal is to affect the $400-billion higher education industry. Surely neither he nor any of us would expect his ideas to be perfect in the first two years or that the industry would be transformed.

It is tempting to call it quits before we really know if an innovative ministry is making a difference. Securing financial support to give every program two to three years of development and every strategic plan five years of implementation would allow enough time to evaluate impact.

I participated in a two-day conversation with Fortune 100 company executives discussing their strategic plans. They indicated that the time horizon of their plans was shrinking from three years to about 18 months.

I am intentionally offering a complication to this sort of thinking. I believe in setting goals and strategies for a longer horizon. This allows for strategies and services to evolve over time while staying true to a consistent long-term vision.