The power of belief

The other day, while I watched my kids frolic in the sprinklers in a recently-revived Central Park playground in New York City, I couldn’t help but wonder where belief comes in when we think about measuring social outcomes.

My son, who wouldn’t change into his bathing suit (“it’s too cold to play in the sprinklers”), was pulled in, splash by splash, until he was soaked head to toe, fully dressed.   Around us were gaggles of proud parents who reminded me why I love New York: Mexicans and Swedes and Spaniards and Hasidic Jews fussing as happily and with as much ease as the Upper East Side moms with their fancy strollers.

How do you calculate whether or not to revitalize a playground?  To turn an expansive but drooping block of concrete and sand into something that glows with the smiles of exuberant children?  Can you calculate all the ancillary effects – the extra ice creams purchased, the carousel rides, the trips on the Circle Line and the trip that another family will take across the Atlantic because New York has beautiful public spaces again – and all the hotel rooms filled and show tickets sold and extra restaurant diners?

Somewhere, belief comes into play.  Someone believed that public spaces matter, and then they assembled the constituency and the funds and the power to change these spaces for the better.  I’m sure that they figured out – by benchmarking and studying and analyzing – the best WAY to refurbish and expand a playground, but none of this analysis told them WHETHER to refurbish a playground, to do something else, or to do nothing.

The world is a complex place, and you never capture the full complexity of a problem nor the nuances of the impact of an intervention. Which means that belief that something’s missing, combined with the guts, determination and gumption to build that new thing, is where real change begins. This is very different from “finding the right answer.”

We in the social sector aspire to better measurement, bemoaning the fact that we lack the clarity of the for-profit world, where a single metric (profits) ostensibly provides as a scorecard of who wins and loses, of what works and what doesn’t (while all the while the big players in the private sector are realizing how poor a yardstick profitability is to measure their own long-term value to customers, employees, communities, and their stakeholders around the world…would that we all converge someday soon).  Measurement will allow us to compare one program to another – will allow us to figure out whether the playground we rebuilt was completed cost-effectively than others; in a way that brought in more or fewer kids than others. But we’ll never win at comparing playgrounds to soup kitchens to preschool programs to job training, unless we go all the way back to first principles.

Once we’ve decided what we’re going to do, the numbers can tell us how well we’re doing it.  But they’ll never tell us what to do in the first place.

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6 thoughts on “The power of belief

  1. cant we observe enjoyment in kids, interview them and their parents about how much they enjoy it, test their gross motor or social or sharing skills (or even whether they are less obese) compared with kids who do not have access to a (randomly) placed playground? and couldn’t we try to price that? and compare that to the benefit of a job training program? i think there are a few studies on the effects of playgrounds at schools. there are a lot of studies on the benefits of early childhood education (which includes things like playgrounds) and socialization is one important thing that is evaluated. playing may not be priceless after all…

  2. Amanda, I have to say in my heart of hearts I’d say I don’t think what you’re describing is possible in a meaningful way. Partially it’s about the leaps of faith I think you’d need to take, for example, both in measuring and then pricing the impact on a kid of going to the playground. Is it that one day, is it a whole lifetime, is it somewhere in between? Would active kids be active somewhere else?

    But more importantly, the playground is about the direct impact on the kids AND a bunch of really complex ancillary benefits to the city, to the strength of the community…to, to, to.

    Especially in the social sector I think we need to be the best at measuring because lives literally are at stake, but we have an even bigger opportunity to show where things can be measured and where we have to rely on leadership, conviction, and vision.

  3. Sasha, I’ve recently started writing about playgrounds in Halifax, Nova Scotia – on the upper east side of Canada. At this point it is really about reviews and the joy of ‘playgrounding’ with my children. I have though been wondering about some of the questions you raise in your post – the overall short and long term benefits to communities and families of investments in play – the deeper meaning of these investments of the absence thereof. I will be pursuing some of these ideas over the winter months trying to tap into the how and why of the belief to engage. I’ll be following to see if you generate anymore discussion on this topic. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  4. That’s great to know. I’ll keep thinking about it. It’s a very interesting question indeed. Thanks for reading.

  5. Great post, Sasha. I’m sure many in the nonprofit world can relate to the challenge of capturing “the nuances of the impact of an intervention.” (Not to be confused with failure to look for measurable outcomes.)

    For me, I’m thrilled to have numbers to show the impact of our literacy program on reading fluency. What’s harder to communicate are the additional benefits the program provides. Benefits that are due to our use of dogs to help kids in the inner-city learn to read and learn to love reading.

    You’re so right to point to belief as the guiding force. I believe the presence of the dogs and volunteers has as much impact on the lives of the children as the curriculum. And for some children, much more.

    But how do you measure the feeling of safety a child feels when, after a shooting in front of the school, the dogs and volunteers walk into the classroom at 10:00, just like every other week? Sometimes, you just have to believe.

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