Waiting for Impact

In youth development work, it’s rare to ever see the fruits of your labor — the actual impact that your work makes. When I was working in my first social change organization, Troy Camp, almost exactly ten years ago, I inherently knew that the mentorship that I was providing was a good thing to do, and it was fun to do. By the end of the school year, the outcome was that we went to camp and had a year full of activities and events with impressionable youngsters from inner city Los Angeles.

The impact, however, was not as clear. After the year was up, a majority of the students who ran Troy Camp lost touch with the youth that they were mentoring, and we could hardly keep up with all of the Troy Camp alumni. There were / are no systems in place, like MOST nonprofits out there right now, to keep track of the clients and the long-term impact that the organization had on the youth. But then again, Troy Camp didn’t really make any promises either. Rather, we made vague promises of a “Commitment to Friendship” and a summer of fun in the wilderness. But back then we were not as savvy as organizations are today–Today’s organizations promise tangible and relevant outcomes and impact — i.e. “increasing the college enrollment rate of low income students”.

And so our organizations embark on lengthy evaluations, both internal and external, calling upon expensive expert evaluators to interview stakeholders, board members, clients, alumni, and staff members, to answer a pretty simple question: Are we making an impact?

This month’s BUILD college tour to San Diego cemented that answer for me, again (it’s good to get a reminder every now and then). It was the eighth college tour I had chaperoned with BUILD, and, hands down, it was the best and most fun one. What was the difference? Maybe I was more alive and more awake to see the subtle changes that students were going through. Maybe it was easier for me to notice their “turning points” or their “moments” on the campus that would forever make an impression on them… so that they are motivated to better in school. Maybe it was because the staff was happier, students were happier, too? Maybe it was the other way around? Either way, the outcome shines: 45 impressionable young minds were exposed to new and inspiring worlds. Now the questions remain: Will the college tour make an impact? Will the college tour motivate them to get better grades so that they can be competitive for these schools? My hunch is yes, and here’s why:

A week ago, Karla forwarded me an email that she got from a current member of Troy Camp, and the email was from a former Troy Camp kid who went to camp in 2002.

To whom it may concern,

As a 3rd grader at 32nd St. Performing Arts Magnet, I was chosen by my teacher to attend Troy Camp along with several of my other classmates. At Troy Camp, I met numerous USC undergraduates, who I will always remember by their nicknames (Snuggles, Fuzzy [sic], etc.). I created a bond with my fellow classmates, new friends, and the Trojan Family. My week at Troy Camp is definitely one of my fondest memories, thus far, and I even tried to attend it once again in 5th grade. Though I didn’t participate in your “follow-up” programs like SMASH, I’m extremely proud of the USC undergraduates for helping out the neighboring schools in such ways. I have been admitted to USC this fall, and wanted to personally let Troy Camp know that the wonderful experience I had in the woods initiated my desire to not only attend SC, but to pursue an education at an academically enriching institution. I am currently undecided about my college plans, but if I do attend USC (I hope I do!), I can’t wait to become a Troy Camp counselor. I hope this e-mail demonstrates that Troy Camp is a great program, and has inspired and will keep inspiring youth to pursue higher education. I congratulate everyone who helps organize and run Troy Camp. Fight on!

Sincerely yours,

Although she spelled my camp name wrong, it was awesome to know that we made an impression on this young woman, and that Troy Camp had made an impact on her life even eight years later. I secretly hope she chooses USC, and Blanche, if you’re reading this, contact me! I’d love to help you out with your college decision-making process.

Now you might be thinking that eight years is just far too long to wait for an impact. But imagine all of the seeds that were planted years ago that are about to bloom. Imagine all of the seeds of knowledge and power that are being planted right now in young social change makers in organizations like BUILD and Troy Camp. In our world of metrics, databases, and spreadsheets, we expect impact immediately. And while quantitative analysis has its place in nonprofit organizations, the letter from Blanche serves as a reminder to me that sometimes impact has it’s own timeline, and we do not always have control over how and when that impact will happen. All of the students that we serve right now might not be able to realize their potential, but in the meantime, we can plant the seeds of hope and create immediate outcomes that will one day blossom into the impact that we had hoped for.

FYI, the pics I’ve added to this post are not of Blanche, but are of the last Troy Camp event I attended — at Disneyland in September 2003.