If you are doing community development work as an independent Citizen Planner you may not need to prove anything to anyone else, but you will still want to look for metrics that show whether or not what you are doing is making a difference. If it isn't making a difference, then you need to know that so you can try something else.

Good metrics are hard to establish under the best of circumstances and citizen planners are often working without real authority. This can be an additional barrier to finding a means to measure what you are doing.

So you may not ever have metrics that serve as strong evidence that you are making a difference. You may have to settle for something weaker, like inference and correlation.

But sometimes you get lucky.

I have at times had experiences where I knew for a fact that I was making a real difference. It still tends to be the case that I can't prove it to other people, but I'm really happy if I can find metrics that show me that what I am doing is working and isn't just a waste of time.

A few years ago, I got lucky and circumstances made it very clear to me that I was making a difference in a fairly large area. I wasn't explicitly trying to do community development work, I was just really hard up for money and trying to improve my own life a bit.

I began collecting recyclables and taking them to a grocery store daily to get cash back. I went twice a day, every day and this store had a notebook with a sheet you had to sign to get your cash.

Initially, my name was the only name in it twice a day, every day, Monday through Friday. On weekends, there would be a few other names.

Over time, that changed and I knew exactly why: People saw me getting cash for my recyclables and people talked to me at times and said things like "Oh, they take recyclables here? I didn't know that. I could use some extra gas money. I'm new around here and everything in California is so expensive."

Over time, that entire area for several blocks in all directions surrounding that grocery store got less trashed out because homeless people began picking up recyclables and getting cash. The store had to upgrade its system for how it handled recyclables because they were taking in so much more.

And the malls in that area began springing back to life, crime began coming down and homeless people in the area were less desperate and behaved less like troublemakers. Instead of sitting at empty tables in front of the store yelling at people, they were sitting there with a drink or a bite to eat and behaving themselves.

It's hard to describe in a way that makes it clear, but it was crystal clear when I was experiencing it. I knew for a fact that me picking up recyclables taught that general area to recycle and had positive impacts on the local economy, the local homeless population and crime.

If you are a citizen planner, you need to see evidence that convinces you that it is making a difference, but you may not need to document it or prove it to anyone else. If you have a job or work with a local non profit, then you may need metrics that can be documented and can convince others that what you are doing matters.

Sometimes the best proof that you are making a difference is readily documented. If you are required to show figures to other people, sometimes people need to kind of "keep two sets of books," so to speak: The numbers that others want to see and the numbers that measure what they think actually matters.

If you are working for an organization, you may find that they will tell you what they want measured and you may think it is a metric that isn't really a good metric. You may think it either doesn't really measure anything or you may feel it isn't really a primary metric.

In many cases, it will be best to just track what you are told to track, even if you think it is either nonsense or a secondary or tertiary metric, and then keep your own records for the primary metric that you think actually matters.

Maybe you are wrong and just don't understand it. Maybe you are right and tracking the primary metric privately will help you deliver the numbers they feel matter.

Worst case scenario: What they want measured actively conflicts with getting the results they claim they want. In that case you may find yourself conflicted and having to decide whether to try to educate them or quit.

If it is all clear in your mind how to get from point A to point B without going through an umbrella organization, then doing things you believe in as a citizen planner can be a low hassle, low overhead way to make a difference in your ocmmunity.

But some things simply can't be effectively accomplished that way. Sometimes working with, for or through an organization offers you authority, funding or other important things for furthering your mission and is worth the extra hassle involved.

One way or another, if you want to make a difference, you need to be tracking metrics in some manner, even if it is just by casual observation, like I did when I began collecting recyclables and watched the area spring back to life.

My other takeaway from that experience was that helping many people a little bit can have a really powerful impact across the community. So don't underestimate efforts to do a little something for many people. You don't need to be a hero with one big obvious win to make a big difference.

This is a video I have watched somewhat recently and I got a lot out of it. It isn't about community development, it's about business metrics. But some of the same general ideas apply in terms of setting goals and picking something pertinent to measure.

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