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Q&A with Ellen Kahler, 2015 Con Hogan Award Winner

Con Hogan Celebration 5 v2

Con Hogan and Ellen Kahler at the award celebration in October 2015.

In 2015, Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), won the inaugural Con Hogan Award for Creative, Entrepreneurial, Community Leadership. In the following May 2016 Q&A, Kahler shares her thoughts on the Award, the role of data in public policy work, and leadership.

Q: What does the Con Hogan Award signify for the state of Vermont as it faces its many challenges?

A: For me there are two significant reasons why the award is so important in our state:

  • There’s nothing else like it to provide an opportunity to recognize and to support the professional development of a mid-career leader in the state. 
  • Because the connection to data and analysis has been a centerpiece of Con’s professional life, the award signals that data analysis is really important from a public policy standpoint. It complements the state’s effort to implement Results Based Accountability (RBA) as its metrics framework across state government. This award reinforces that message. Historically, Con helped Mark Friedman develop the RBA and helped pave the way for RBA to become widely used—but it might never have happened in Vermont had Con not paved the way in the 1990s with the measurement and data work he insisted upon while at the Agency of Human Services.

Q: What impact has receiving the award had on you personally? On your organization?

A: First and foremost it was such a huge honor. I have such respect for Con and have always been a big believer in data guiding public policy. It was an enormous validation to be recognized, and also a surprise. The award signaled that what I value as important is also valued by other people who do a tremendous amount of public good in our state. For me personally, I do this work because it is my life’s work—it’s far more than just a job to me. It’s about making a real contribution to the betterment of others and to society. I don’t expect to get recognized. I’m doing what I love and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do it every day.

Impact on my organization: I believe the award increased our overall reputation, especially for people who weren’t acquainted with our work. Many people had heard of us, but didn’t necessarily know about the impact our work is having. I gauge the impact it’s had on the VSJF by the number of people who reached out to congratulate me. Even now seven months later I’m receiving congratulations, which is an indication that people remember the importance of this award. That’s pretty neat.

Q: As a winner, what words of encouragement do you send to people in the community who are considering nominating a colleague or friend?   

A: Think of someone who is already having a big impact in your community and/or in our state; someone you want to continue to do well over the coming next decade; someone for whom the recognition and the $15k would really help to deepen their work; someone who would be rejuvenated by some professional development that could be paid for with this award; someone you have a strong sense will do more good things in the future that will benefit our state. 

Q: This award focuses on individuals who make good use of data and a focus on results in their work. When did you make a decision to rely more on data in your work? What obstacles did you run into, both inside your organization and outside?

A: I realized back in 1995 while engaged in environmental and social justice change work that our efforts would not go anywhere if we didn’t take on economic justice. That’s when I teamed up with Doug Hoffer to do the Vermont Job Gap Study. Doug knew the ins and outs of various federal and state data sets. I knew how to use the data and analysis we generated together to galvanize Vermonters around livable wages. I recognized the value of talking about data and analysis—of having good data underpin the social change work we needed to be working on. When you want the legislature to work on an issue, you definitely need the passion for the issue but you also need a solid rationale for why the change is needed, based on data. I learned early on to have solid analyses backed up with transparent data sources. Being transparent about your data sources is vital because it will get examined during the public policy discussions. If you want to be seen as a trusted source of information and to be a partner in public policy development, then you have to be open and honest about the data you use, and its limitations as well.

Q: A lot of people roll their eyes when they hear the words “metrics” or “measurable outcomes.” Why do you think that is? What does that say about where the field of impact measurement needs to go?

A: People roll their eyes because they’re not comfortable with data and don’t know its value. More education is needed on how to value and interpret data. Within Farm to Plate we create opportunities to spend time with data, but not as much as we need to. 

Q: Can you talk about one example of a decision in your organization that was heavily influenced by what your data was telling you?

A: When we were writing the Farm to Plate strategic plan, we used the US Census of Agriculture and US Department of Labor data to shape our recommendations for what we needed to focus on. Every chapter in our plan is influenced by the data: the plan started with current conditions related to production, processing, etc. The second section was analysis and built off the data in the current conditions section. We also heard from Vermonters who were part of a lengthy public engagement process. The third section then focused on recommendations and strategies going forward. You can see that the data guided the very structure of the Farm to Plate strategic plan.

In addition, we adopted the Collective Impact framework once we moved to implementing the Farm to Plate plan and we chose to use RBA as the framework for the Shared Metrics condition of Collective Impact.

Q: What advice do you have for people who are contemplating bringing a more data- and results-focused approach to their decision-making in organizations?

A: I would say that it’s most helpful to have someone on your team who knows data really well and can help with the translation. Eventually that person can develop a team that works with data analysis. Interestingly enough, almost all of my staff have a grounding in data analysis which is probably out of the ordinary for most organizations. In Farm to Plate, twice a year we ask our various Network groups to look at the data that relates to their leverage areas. We want them to consider what the data is showing and to consider how it might inform their work and focus over the coming years.

It’s most important to start where you are at, make people more comfortable, and to help them learn to value the grounding of their work in data. Our Farm to Plate Network groups were open to this effort and the experience of working with data varied widely among group members. They initially weren’t clear about what the measures should be, so we began with the population level indicators and then evolved into helping them write their performance measures. There is a spot on our website for these performance measures and we hope they will be functional. We especially want this process to serve us when we have to write a ten-year retrospective report on what Farm to Plate accomplished. In essence, we’re using RBA to document the history of our work for posterity.

Here’s an example.

Q: This award focuses on individuals who place a high value on public good. When you look out at all the organizations and institutions that are trying to affect communities for the better, what’s the biggest challenge at the moment? What’s the biggest opportunity?

A: Too often we are faced with a public policy or public good challenge without understanding the complexity of the system, so we come up with fixes that don’t fit the situation and we don’t produce the change we thought would occur. I also think that there has been an unfortunate but real eroding of trust by citizens in their government. This started intentionally during the Reagan years and has only accelerated in the past 15 years, as partisan politics has gotten more shrill. This eroding of trust in our government is very dangerous because it can eventually lead to chaos and anarchy. We have to understand the underlying reasons why people don’t trust different levels of government anymore and need to all commit to rebuilding that trust over the next 20 years… that’s likely how long it will take. We need to have civil discourse, where we can disagree respectfully and debate hard issues. It seems to me that many of our major public policy challenges have to do with how big and disconnected the system has gotten (e.g, health care system, food system). Too often we try to make “fixes” without really understanding the fundamentals of that system. Systems by definition are complex and so we all need to improve our understanding of how complex systems are adapted and changed over time.

Q: A lot of leaders have a clear vision for the role their organization or institution needs to play in the community. In your experience, what’s a common barrier to making that vision real? How do you get around that barrier?

A: The biggest barrier—quite frankly—is not having enough unrestricted funding, not having enough staffing and funding capacity to truly bring about the vision. Although, you could say that a lofty vision will never be achieved—that’s why it’s a vision—it gives you something to aim for. So from that perspective, it’s not necessarily a barrier. The challenge facing organizations is to utilize all the resources you have available (staff, funding, volunteers) effectively and efficiently on the right things. It gets back to this whole complexity issue described in the previous answer. Are you really working on the right things? Have you analyzed it carefully? Are you working on the root causes of an issue? There’s never enough time to work on root causes. We have such a racial and income divide—we are overwhelmed with helping people first with basic needs, so we never get to work on the big systems change stuff. Well that’s where data and analysis can come into play—and RBA of course—to help focus your work in ways that hopefully will achieve the greatest impact for the greatest number of people.

I also think most nonprofit organizations lack a real understanding of marketing and PR to effectively publicize their organization’s impact. It’s hard to get media attention these days, even with social media. We’re learning that traditional approaches, like the press release, are a waste of time, but a lot of people still use them. So the task is to develop a communications strategy that’s up with the times.

Q: What’s your advice for up-and-coming leaders in the state?

A: Do what you say you’re going to do. Treat people as you want to be treated. Both of these things build trust—lead to people trusting. If you’re a leader, the best thing you can do is to build trusting relationships so that you can work on the issues you are most passionate about with others, in a skillful and insightful way, which hopefully leads to lasting impact.