WHY METRICS? (with Julie Thomas)

We at Polis Institute recently partnered with Orlando Nonprofit Alliance (ONA) to lead a workshop on “Harnessing the Power of Metrics.” The purpose will be to help nonprofit organizations understand why and how to use metrics to improve their work. Julie Thomas, MNM Data and Reporting Analysis Consultant for Polis, will moderate the June 28th, 2019 workshop, hosted by Nova Southeastern University.

Thomas has spent over 15 years working in education, healthcare, and nonprofits. She was a teacher in Indianapolis before relocating to Orlando in 2006 where she held various positions with Advent Health. In her roles, she has served as an internal consultant to hospital leaders, where she assisted them with understanding departmental and organizational data points, as well as applying best practices to improve the experience of their patients, employees, and overall performance of their department. Julie also managed the new employee onboarding program. Her contribution led to improve patient experience, employee engagement, and employee retention.

In this interview, Julie Thomas shares her expertise on how to effectively use metrics in the nonprofit industry for successful outcomes.

Why is it important to create and maintain clear metrics?

I’ve spent the last week watching landscapers tear up my backyard, lay pavers, and build a retaining wall. It was fascinating watching them place the pavers together brick by brick in an intricate pattern that fit perfectly in the footprint of the new patio. I know that this was not by accident or luck. The workman spent a lot of time measuring and grading the space before they even laid the first brick. And afterwards, they measured again to ensure that it was level and the size and shape that we requested.

Could you imagine what would have happened if the landscapers would have just started to lay down the first pavers wherever they thought it should go, without a single measurement? Very likely we would have ended up with a crooked patio. Or the workman would have had to restart over and over and over again when they realized that the bricks weren’t lining up, wasting a lot of valuable time and energy. But so often we see organizations do something similar. They may start programs with good intentions and deploy activities without first determining what success looks like and how to evaluate their progress toward that successful outcome.

The work and effort that this team of landscapers put into preparing for the project by planning their measurements and then making adjustments during the installation and afterwards resulted in a beautiful new patio that my family can enjoy. In the same way, it’s important that organizations use data and measurement to plan for their activities and programs then evaluate as they go, so that the execution of their strategy is not done haphazardly.

How does one begin to build out meaningful metrics for their organization?

First, organizations need to determine what change they are trying to make and how their activities affect that change.  If we do X, then Y will happen. Take, for example, the desired change of improving educational outcomes for 3rd grade students who aren’t reading at grade level. One “If/Then” statement could be: IF we provide weekly, one-on-one tutoring for students in reading, THEN their reading comprehension will improve.

If tutoring is the activity that you will utilize to create the desired change, you then can build out the measurements you need for the program, which include inputs (e.g. program budget, staff or volunteer hours, curriculum development), outputs (e.g. the number of students tutored or hours of tutoring), and outcomes (e.g. student test score). Goals or targets can be set for each of these items.

How do you go about measuring impact?

Impact is trickier to measure because oftentimes it may take months or even years to see. In our tutoring example, the impact in educational outcomes might not be observable until the 3rd grader graduates from high school or college, or finds fulfilling employment. While 3rd grade reading levels are certainly important, the long-term goal may be that the students experience vocational and economic stability as adults. It is possible to measure for the long-term impact by following up with your program’s clients after they complete the program. However, you can also work backward and consider what short-term outcomes you expect to see as a result of your program or activities and plan how to measure for those.

What are the best ways for an organization to utilize metrics once they’ve been established?

Have a plan! It’s much easier and more effective to plan for measurement and evaluation before the program begins. After you determine what you are going to measure (i.e. inputs, outputs, and outcomes), then focus on the details, such as how it will be measured, by whom, how often, etc. And importantly, plan for how the data will be reviewed by the organization to ensure that the program goals are on track and adjustments can be made as needed.

Just like my landscapers had a plan for building a patio, organizations need to incorporate measurement and evaluation when planning for and executing their programs. It is an essential part of strategic thinking and crucial for successful outcomes.



Businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and social enterprises. While different in structure, these institutions and the leaders behind them share an essential belief — society needs truly effective high impact change that moves the needle on critical issues like health equity, poverty reduction, and educational justice.

For more than a decade, dedicated people from many different such types of institutions have been creating localized eco-systems of change. These ecosystems are known as ‘collective impact models.’ Originating in North Carolina and popularized by the work of authors in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, collective impact has rightfully gained traction as the most viable model for genuinely effective change that makes real differences in communities.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of the best measured examples of collective impact and get insight into the power of the Collective Impact model to bring about shifts in community wide outcomes.

The StrivePartnership educational initiative in Cincinnati is an example that portrays the influence collective impact can have on a community. This initiative, established in 2006, aimed to address and improve the educational system in Cincinnati, Ohio and Northern Kentucky by helping students accel in their academic journey at every stage of their life – “from cradle to career”.

They utilized the model successfully by bringing together over 300 local community leaders and organizations from different sectors who believed in the importance of education to better understand the needs of the community they lived in. All participants agreed to collaborate with each other through a well-structured process to measure and ensure student progress, while also learning and supporting each other. They understood that an individual leader or organization, however successful, cannot accomplish this goal by oneself. This partnership directly lead to major improvements in the educational system of that region.  The region saw a significant increase in graduate rates, students GPA, and even child readiness leading into kindergarten.

As of today, StrivePartnership still shows an ongoing improvement of student success based on the shared key performance indicators. They continually aspire to enhance the well-being of the community through education. In their mission to strengthen the educational system in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, they are now focusing on ensuring racial and economic equity. Due to the success of StrivePartnership and their use of the collective impact model, a few leaders from StriveParnership established StriveTogether Cradle-to-Career Network in hopes of replicating this initiative in other communities nationwide. Their journey of improving the education system in America has a strong foundation with the use of this model laying at its core.

Collective Impact has also been successfully used in initiatives aimed to alleviate poverty. Tamarack Institute partnered with J. W. McConnell Family Foundation and Caledon Institute of Social Policy to establish Vibrant Communities in 2002. They worked with 13 trail builders cities and community leaders for ten years with the common goal to reduce poverty in Canada. The first year was dedicated to learn about the community’s needs related to poverty and engage the population to think about ways to eradicate poverty. Specific strategies for each community were built based on the knowledge gained that first year. These strategies primarily involved a multi-sector network of local leaders, non-profits, and businesses who work together with a well-structured methodology to improve different areas of poverty that affects  education, employment, and overall health among many others.

The co-founder of Tamarack Institute, Paul Born, felt that one of the most pivotal successes of this initiative came from empowering individuals to believe in their own ability to truly make an impact in alleviating poverty. During a 10 year span, Vibrant Communities led to a poverty reduction of 10% in several communities that impacted over 200,000 low income Canadians.

This success can be explained by an understanding from all partners to address poverty through better systems that can have a lasting impact on a population level. Due to the success of Vibrant Cities, Cities Reducing Poverty was created in 2012 as a movement to replicate the collective impact model used by Vibrant Communities in other cities and communities. Over the years, Cities Reducing Poverty has developed poverty alleviation strategies that over 175 cities are now successfully using to collectively work towards reducing poverty in their communities. Tamarack Institute shares case studies and helpful resources on collective impact on their website if you are interested to know more or to use a collective impact model in your community.

These initiatives share the five core conditions of Collective Impact: common agenda, a continuous communication, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, and a backbone function. Although Collective Impact might not be the only way to resolve social issues, these five core conditions has proved to be powerful in addressing complex social problems to bring about social change on a large scale.

To learn more about collective impact, check out these wonderful resources:
Foundation Strategy Group (FSG)
Collective Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review – SSIR)
Does Collective Impact really make an impact? (SSIR)
Tamarack Institute



Oftentimes, multiple organizations work in isolation to address problems. Collective impact brings people together, typically from different sectors, and applies a structured approach to solving complex social problems. It is more than just collaboration. It is a unified plan and vision with shared accountability across all the participants. There are five core conditions of Collective Impact.

Common Agenda
All participants have a shared vision, common understanding of the problem, aligned strategies for addressing the problem, and mutually-agreed-upon objectives and goals.

Shared Measurement System
Progress is measured with agreed-upon indicators that are shared among the partners

Continuous Communication
Transparent and continual communication exists among all the groups. This is essential to remain focused on the problem and build trust between the partners

Mutually-Reinforcing Activities
While each partner may be focused on a different aspect of the problem, efforts are coordinated to avoid duplication and encourage efficiency and collaboration.

Backbone Function
A dedicated team focuses on coordinating the partners and managing the Collective Impact components.

In a Collective Impact model, high priority is placed on equity, continual learning, and a culture that promotes relationship, trust, and respect.


Eatonville, Florida – Culture of Health Prize Winner 2018

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation collaborates with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to award the Culture of Health Prize to select communities. This prize focuses on marginalized populations who show commitment to working together to better their residents’ lifestyles and the places they live in. These commitments are evident in different fields such as health, education, and business. Eatonville, Florida was one of four communities selected this year as a recipient of Culture of Health Prize out of nearly 200 applicants from across the country. Other communities that received this prize were: Cicero, Illinois; Klamath County, Oregon; and San Antonio, Texas. The Polis Institute contributed to this success by deploying our community engagement model and developing resident leadership. This program is called Leadership Eatonville which prepares participants to utilize a growth mindset, project management, and asset-based community development to help the community achieve meaningful goals. Leadership Eatonville was first piloted in 2016 and has graduated thirty-two residents thus far. Financial support for our efforts was provided by Winter Park Health Foundation which has had a long-standing relationship with the town and, along with Florida Hospital, established Healthy Eatonville Place – an initiative that contributed significantly to the town’s Culture of Health Prize win. The heroes of the story, however, are without a doubt the residents of Eatonville – the oldest predominant black community in America. These residents, 2,200 strong, were determined to make their community flourish by improving quality of life while maintaining the historical character of the city. Along with the help of churches, government leaders, organizations, nonprofits, associations leading various programs, projects, and trainings, Eatonville has realized great improvements over the past few years in terms of health, resident leadership and engagement, housing, education, local economy, and community development. After the discovery of high rates of diabetes, the town of Eatonville decided to take actions to be a healthier place. Town hall, nine local churches, Winter Park Health Foundation, Florida Hospital, and the Orlando Chapter of the American Diabetes Association all held an important role in addressing diabetes in the city. This was achieved through several initiatives surrounding wellness services such as, health classes, and studies on how to prevent or fight diabetes. The existing nine churches in Eatonville took part in this effort to make Eatonville flourish through high school sports games, diabetes prevention programs, food pantries, fitness classes, and after school programs. Additionally, a brand new school opened in August with the support of the mayor, the churches, and local businesses. They sought to fulfill the students’ needs during the school year. STEM was also incorporated throughout the curriculum. With a great desire to empower the next generation of leaders, Eatonville prepares youth for success with the help of local leaders, non-profits, after school programs, and churches. Read more about Eatonville’s award on the RWJF site by clicking here.

Polis Stakeholder Accountability Model

Polis Institute designs solutions to social problems by valuing the perspectives of everyone with a stake in addressing the problem. We serve our three stakeholder groups (Residents, Investors, and Service Providers) in a parallel process —as facilitator— in order to achieve goals that bring the greatest benefit to those directly impacted by the issue, often the local residents.

Residents - People who live in neighborhood, Investors - Those investing capital to help residents, Service Providers - professionals who provide support that work for smaller nonprofits


Why Place Based?

In 2015, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, issued a statement that “a child’s life expectancy is predicted more by his ZIP code than his genetic code.” In the United States, the 12th richest country in the world, there are neighboring  ZIP codes that have a 20-year difference in life expectancy. That should give everyone pause. It should make us all ask why this is the case … and then move to do something to change it.

The most common factor in neighborhoods with relatively lower life expectancy is lower than average income levels. Low-income neighborhoods tend to have less healthy amenities (e.g. bike paths, sidewalks, access to fresh produce, parks, and exercise facilities), while also having more conditions that are antagonistic to health (e.g. factories, traffic, brownfields, and crime). Add to that mix the fact that opportunities for advancement are often stymied through chronic stress, overly restrictive housing and employment policies, and underperforming schools for the next generation.

“In the United States, there are neighboring ZIP codes that have a 20-year difference in life expectancy.
That should give everyone pause.”

And yet, these very neighborhoods are filled with people fully aware of their dignity and worth; people with talent and passion whose gifts are far too often neglected or ignored. This costs all of us something. This is precisely why place-based philanthropy is so vital — we need the people who live in these neighborhoods to be a part of strengthening our cities and making the world a better place.

This is an excerpt from our 2017 Annual Report.



The Four-Fold Benefit of POLIS

The Polis Institute (POLIS) is an applied research non-profit that was founded to improve the way we help one another. Our mission is to champion human dignity by designing solutions to the social problems that infringe upon it. We envision a world in which most people enjoy the fruit of their labors in long and healthy lives.

We focus on improving distressed neighborhoods because research points to this approach as the most strategic philanthropic investment. We facilitate partnerships with residents, investors, businesses, civic leaders, and non-profits to simultaneously address issues in education, housing, employment, health and wellness, overall aesthetics, and safety.

To achieve success in this comprehensive approach, we deploy our Stakeholder Accountability Model that brings four key groups together to address these issues: 1) residents; 2) philanthropic investors; 3) service providers; 4) academics. The unique four-fold benefit of POLIS is that we simultaneously help each of these important groups.

We work primarily in Metro Orlando. We have developed a Neighborhood Stress Index to monitor progress in the 100 most distressed areas of the region and have established a goal to propel this important city into the 90th percentile of American cities for well-being as measured by Gallup (currently in the 68th percentile) through neighborhood revitalization.

1. Residents: We work directly with residents of distressed neighborhoods to help them achieve their goals. Through margins in our consulting and training efforts, we can deploy 100% of your donations to serving this population in these three key areas:

o Families: The difficulties of raising a family are compounded by the stressors of poverty. We coordinate a program called MVP Families that serves 100 families who live near Camping World Stadium to strengthen relationships in the home, meet family goals, and help the children succeed academically.

o Leaders: Community leadership transcends the interests of any one organization or institution to benefit an entire community. We have developed training and coaching services to cultivate this talent in residents which has resulted in initiatives such as Leadership Eatonville, West Lakes Partnership, and the East Winter Garden Alliance.

o Underemployed: Distressed neighborhoods are full of people whose talents are underappreciated. We engage residents in a four to six-month program to develop marketable skills while benefiting their community. To date, over 100 people have participated in this program, earning an average stipend of $2,700 while improving skills in computer literacy, communications, event planning, management, graphic design, meeting facilitation, data entry and analysis.

2. Philanthropic Investors: We improve the way philanthropic investment is deployed by providing consultation services and research to foundations, large non-profits, and local government. We work with some of the most influential groups in the city because their perspective, passion, and creativity is vital to solving our most complex issues. We currently work with Winter Park Health Foundation, Town of Eatonville, LIFT Orlando, City of Orlando, Florida Hospital, Florida Citrus Sports, Orlando Health, Haddock Family Foundation, and many others.

3. Service Providers: We improve the way that non-profits and other service providers serve their constituents through leadership coaching, volunteer training, and metrics. We also facilitate constructive partnerships to serve communities. Our primary volunteer training, Dignity Serves, has been used by hundreds of organizations to improve their service efforts. Our non-profit partners and clients include: First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Hebni Nutrition, Jobs Partnership, Healthy Eatonville Place, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, and Kaley Square.

4. Academics: We improve academic models through our applied research on theories of social change that originate in top-tier institutions such as Collective Impact (Harvard), Asset-Based Community Development (Northwestern), Human Centered Design (Stanford), Action Research (MIT), and Thriving Cities (University of Virginia). We facilitate the involvement of local academics from Rollins College, Valenica College, and University of Central Florida by helping place doctoral students in community settings and by collaborating with administration and faculty.

Working with these four groups, POLIS has helped guide the Metro Orlando philanthropic community towards place and asset-based approaches to addressing concentrated poverty since its inception in 2009. This shift has resulted in tens of millions of dollars of investment in local neighborhoods, high levels of resident engagement and participation, and dramatic improvements in the lives of specific families and whole communities. Impacts include significant reductions in crime, improvements in educational outcomes, increases in affordable housing units, families exiting poverty, town charters modernized, reductions in chronic health problems, healthier infrastructure, career advancements, and more.

Board of Directors:
Dan Sherfield, Board Chair, Summit Church
Scott Lee, Elevation Financial
Jessica Jetton, Care for AIDS
Julie Zaiback, Adventist Health System
Ryan Norman, Vistana Signature Experiences
Amanda Ward, Rollins College

Please read our annual reportview our organizational profile at the Central Florida Foundation, or contact us for more information.


The Value of Play

It’s the summer of 1966 at the University of Texas: A typical college campus day with young adults strolling across the courtyard, chatting about the latest hot topics, loosely clutching textbooks in the heat, and perhaps fewer students than normal due to it being a summer session. Claire Wilson James and John Fox are names you might not know, but they are two of the survivors of a mass shooting by a lone wolf that left 16 dead and several wounded on campus that day. There are a myriad of articles related to this tragic moment in American History and even a documentary called “Tower” that details it from a unique perspective.

After the shooting, psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown was charged to examine the mental state of the shooter. What he found consistently both in the shooter, and in 26 other convicted murderers in the Texas State Penitentiary was a severe lack of free play during their childhood. It led Dr. Brown to carry out extensive research on the long-term effects of play on people. After examining 6000 subjects trying to quantify the effects of play throughout childhood, Dr. Brown found that those who experienced more play had similar characteristics as adults: light-heartedness, empathy, optimism, hopefulness, and adaptability. As he put it all these traits “seemed to be a by-product of their playful time together.” Dr. Stuart Brown went on to found the National Institute for Play which now specializes in ongoing research related to this topic.

The Polis Institute works to infuse strategies like this into the distressed neighborhoods we serve. One example is our weekly Diverse Word gathering at Lake Lorna Doone Park in Orlando where we create opportunities for play through poetry and games. At this weekly event, I recently experienced a twofold revelation as it relates to the game of chess.

I heard from a volunteer about an OCPS Title One middle school team that had ranked highly in a chess tournament. This led to me research the effects of playing chess on academic achievement, and the outcomes I came across were astounding: chess exercises both sides of the brain, increases creativity, memory, problem-solving skills, reading, concentration, and the list goes on. I began to teach myself how to play with the hope of becoming a cheerleader of sorts for chess and thus change the world! If only it were that easy, right? But I do feel like I’m on to something.

The second part of this revelation was that chess is played every day at Lake Lorna Doone Park. I know because I have seen it with my own eyes, and have been crushed by opponents in this game of intense logic and strategy. It then dawned on me that the game of chess just might be the greatest common denominator across existing social structures where we work in 32805.

The Polis Institute utilizes both our own research and experience, combined with leading studies, actionable solutions, and best practices to seek the welfare of the city. While there are no silver bullets to solving complex social issues and championing human dignity, playing a game of chess with our neighbors can increase our community’s social, emotional, and intellectual resources.


Placemaking Through Artistic Expression

Back in 2006, I started an open mic in Orlando, FL called “Diverse Word.” I was a 23-year-old idealist who thought my city could use some diversity within the art of spoken word poetry. It became a success in terms of vision actualized, attendance, and the profit it brought to the local café that hosted it. I heard story after story of how meaningful this open mic was to patrons outside of the obvious enjoyment of free entertainment.

At the ten-year mark last year, I sought to document some of those stories and realized how important it was for forums like this to exist. I heard things like, “I was diagnosed with cancer and I came to the open mic to see how other people dealt with their issues. It was therapeutic for me and I have since been cancer-free.” I’m not saying that poetry cures cancer, but creating a safe space for expression does allow for the sacred spaces of human dreams and desires to be heard and tapped into. The positive outcomes from that expression were a byproduct of the original intent.

Something unique happens when people regularly gather together and express their dreams and desires. I noticed it at my open mic nights. And I learned it while working in communities for Polis Institute. It led me to initiate an open mic arts night that includes music at Lake Lorna Doone Park. We are interested in seeing how this and other opportunities for community art and dialogue will transform this public city space and hopefully create a more welcoming environment for children and families. We’ve collaborated with ArtReach Orlando, and on the Southwest corner of the park, under the broad shade of a tree, set up a blank canvas with paint. What effect will this have on the nearby schools and residents in 10 years?

Amanda Burden is a former NYC city commissioner who now consults globally to improve urban public spaces. She believes that cities must have enjoyable accessible public space to thrive, and has described them as “the glue that holds a city together, and…make[s] people want to live in a city and stay in a city.” In a Ted Talk on the subject, she summed up her philosophy with the thought that “a successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time.”

As the community of Orlando develops and strengthens all parts of our city, it seems to me that our direction should be to help people have a great time! At a truly fabulous party, everyone gets a turn on the dance floor and the DJ takes all requests. Intentional opportunities for artistic expression can invite in people that don’t always have a voice in the life of the city.

Join us on any given Tuesday for the fabulous party of expression known as Diverse Word: from 4 to 6pm at Lake Lorna Doone Park and from 7:30 to 10pm at Dandelion Communitea Café.



For more of Amanda Burden’s thoughts on public space, you can watch her 2014 Ted talk or read up on a 2016 NPR interview.


Curb Cutting: How Solving Problems for One Group Helps us All

The Polis Institute is a non-profit organization that aims to remove the barriers that prevent experiencing long, healthy, fruitful and dignified lives. Many of these barriers stem from concentrated poverty, but there are additional barriers, both physical and metaphoric, that manifest in a variety of ways. We at POLIS use and develop research around the best practical ways to engage with people living in areas of high distress, and help design long-term solutions for the well-being of their community.

Approaching global systemic issues very locally, over a long range of time, is not a popular model in our fast-paced, instant gratification society. But taking time to get to know people, and deeply considering their expressed desires and visions of what could be, can be effective on a grander scale than imagined.

Conventionally, city sidewalks and city streets met at the right angle of a curb. No harm in that, right? You just step on and off. However, for Edward Roberts, confined to a wheelchair and iron lung after contracting polio, that six inch curb was a major hurdle. As a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, he became a disability rights activist, and led a movement to create curb cuts, or ramps, to allow sidewalk access to people with wheelchairs. Curb cuts had existed since the 1940s when they were created to assist disabled WWII vets, but were not in common use or well known until Roberts and his classmates worked to design solutions for a local, small, underserved group of people with limited mobility.

With decades of effort, and the benefit of national attention to the accomplishments of this growing movement, the 1990 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed, mandating curb cuts everywhere – removing barriers to wheelchair access to city sidewalks and the cities themselves.

My point, however is not that a small group won a victory that serves them alone. It is that a much larger and unanticipated group of people also benefitted from the well-designed solution of curb cuts. Anyone pushing a baby stroller or a grocery cart, riding a skateboard or bicycle, can use a curb cut. Curb cuts help call attention to an intersection’s crosswalk which increases pedestrian safety, are easier to shovel clear in the snow, and are more navigable for the very young and old. When people concentrate their efforts in assisting the overlooked, and solving just a single problem, it can open a whole new world of opportunities for all of society. The Polis Institute desires to be an Ed Roberts in the world, who in slowly serving and designing solutions for the one, would benefit the many in cities across the United States and the world.