Setting up the basis for success: the Center for Violence Free Relationships

In an interview with Matt Huckabay, Executive Director of the Center for Violence-Free Relationships (Placerville, California), we highlight organizational – and economic – benefits and pitfalls to avoid when adopting a Theory of Change (ToC).

Setting up the basis for success: the Center for Violence Free Relationships

The Center for Violence-Free Relationships, founded in 1980, operates to build healthy relationships, families and communities free from sexual assault and domestic violence. In 2010, the Center started a major organizational tune-up to improve its capacity and have a deeper impact in the community. This culminated with the drafting of an agency wide Theory of Change in early 2013 with the specific impact goal of interrupting the inter-generational transmission of interpersonal violence.

The process requested resources and time, as well as a strong commitment of the leadership who had to make this revolution take roots by all means necessary. But the efforts were worth it. The Center has improved its overall effectiveness – nonetheless its ability to demonstrate the achieved results to its stakeholders and gain a competitive edge in an increasingly over-crowded fundraising market.

We have examined the dynamics of the Center as a case study to illustrate benefits and pitfalls to avoid with the champion of this process: Matt Huckabay, Executive Director of the Center for Violence Free Relationships and Leap Ambassador.


When and why did you realize that focusing on outputs was not enough? In a recent Performance Imperative webinar you said “we needed depth, and not breadth”. Could you expand on this?

What occurred, is that we were seeing an end-less cycle of domestic violence happening over and over again: users would come, take some services, go away – and have another violent relationship. It became apparent to me that whatever services we were providing, although we were providing a great number of activities to a great number of people, the effects were not either measurable or having the intended impact we thought. We needed to figure out what it actually took, what our clients actually needed to stop this cycle of family violence. The reality of seeing clients come back manifold times again was something that the domestic violence field used to put forward as a justification for increased funding or larger philanthropic gifts. My interpretation was that, if we had clients coming back after receiving services from us, that was really an indicator of our failure as an organization – not something we were going to show our funders to request more resources that were eventually proving to be ineffective. We needed to make funders understand that that was exactly how their money was used: a perpetuation of poor services delivered to people without any real significant outcome.


“One day our front door opened and I watched as a young mom walked in holding a baby, and behind her was her mom, who was followed by her mom. Three generations of women, from the same family, all of whom had a history of domestic violence, and they were holding that fourth generation in their arms. And it was at that moment I said: this is not working. And so that’s when the seed got planted that I got to figure out a way to make this different”


How did your way of operating changed after embarking in a Theory of Change process?

The biggest shift came from really focusing on who exactly did we want to provide services to and what final goal we intended to achieve in doing that. So we went through our Theory of Change process and we identified that our mission did not need to be to eliminate domestic violence – a big, grand mission as most organizations have which implies stopping a major social problem without really having the resources and ability to impact that much. We figured out that we wanted to stop the passing on of that cycle of violence from one generation to the next. Once we knew what our goal was, we stepped backwards to identify the milestones and indicators we needed to see from our clients to assure they were moving in that direction and set up frameworks to carefully measure to what extent these progresses were taking place.


What would you identify as the major benefits you experienced as an organization after designing your Theory of Change?

First of all, great benefits arise on the organizational efficiency and effectiveness side – having a Theory of Change for the organization and one for each of our projects makes conversation about opportunities much smoother. It is just a matter of checking whether the particular funding is aligned with our ToC. If it is not, we let it go: we don’t chase money anymore, trying to create almost ad-hoc projects to comply with a specific funder’s call. I used to apply to probably 30-40 grants per year – now I apply on average to 4 grants a year, but on each of them we are well positioned and in the right conditions to get it.

I also know which of my staff members are the most effective for which type of clients and problems; I know what our clients’ greatest needs are so I can direct resources to address those specific issues… We now have clarity about our mission – programs – and activities we are engaged in.


“I used to apply to probably 30-40 grants per year – now I apply for on average 4 grants a year, but on each of them we are well positioned and in the right conditions to get it”


Secondly, it’s a matter of external positioning: we are now perceived at a national level, and not only in our specific field of expertise, as early-adopters of the Theory of Change framework in the non profit sector, particularly for smaller organizations. So we now are able to perform a lot of consulting work helping other organizations move in this direction. This has set us apart, as a backbone organization, because our ability is recognized to be transferrable to other organizations – not always in our direct service area. For example our local County asked us to create a Theory of Change on how to address homelessness – we put a team together and we are currently working on it. So the brand has set us apart and also expanded the opportunity that we have.

Another example: we went back to the Blue Shield of California Foundation, who initially invested in our capacity building with a $100.000 grant, and told them: “we identified other domestic violence Npos that want to introduce performance management in their work, and we can help them do that”. We have received almost $650.000 to work with them and develop their own Theory of Change. We are good at it, so why not capitalize our ability? So this has become a completely separate stream of revenues for our organization.


In your opinion and personal experience what are the pitfalls to avoid in this organizational re-thinking?

First of all you don’t have to forget the cultural framework of the organization: you need to have internally some early-adopters, “cheerleaders” it you will, who operate as internal ambassadors with the rest of the staff. If you are not aware of the culture you are in, and invest time in changing that paradigm, this will not work. That must be a priority as the implementation of a performance management itself.

The second point it to understand that it takes time: implementing a software system to measure the effectiveness of delivered services and track outcomes took us 8-12 months from sourcing to use, but actually integrating the concept of evidence-based working takes multiple years and is a constant process. When we began the transformation inside the organization of figuring out which programs we would not continue to deliver or which ones needed to be reduced, we fundamentally had to reorganize how we worked. It started very slowly and was an incremental change as it required fixing and touching a lot of different operational areas in the organization, from “how do we handle in-takes” to “what are the cultural issues we have as an organization” to “is our staff competent enough to work on a cloud-based system”. We followed that process step by step with fidelity, adjusting one point before moving to the next one, because we did not want to make a bunch of revolutions without really managing the transition. Everyone can decide to embark on this path, but the real point is committing to managing the process to really change the way the organization operates and performs.


“Everyone can decide to embark on this path, but the real point is committing to managing the process to really change the way the organization operates and performs”


Finally we also had to reassure our staff that data would not be used in a punitive way – because so often that’s the mindset on how data work – but to provide feedback. That took some time and I confess I had to be vigilant sometimes on not using data in a punitive way myself when I was seeing shocking results in performances reports. From the initial “What are you doing?!” it would occur in my mind, what came out had to be “This is interesting. What does these data tell you?”


How did you internally champion this process to get everyone onboard in what basically constitutes a major shift in how the organization operates and conceive its work?

With our board it was more of an economic reasoning. Funders want to know that their money are being used wisely, and this no longer means “how many people you served?” but rather “what happened to the people you served?”. Thus it became very easy to put together data and show how more and more funders were actually requesting performance data from their grantees. I also illustrated how competition for existing funding was increasing while the amount of available resources was shrinking: for example in our area, the funding pot once exclusive to Npos was suddenly opened to school districts, resulting in a 200% increase in the number of people that could apply for our main revenue stream. Therefore it became a conversation on how are we going to be competitive in our market: a business decision on how to brand ourselves apart and distinguish to maintain – and enlarge – our market share by being the first to adopt a performance management system and account not only for the numbers of services delivered but for our overall effectiveness.


“Competition for existing funding was increasing while the amount of available resources was shrinking. It was a business decision on how to brand ourselves apart and distinguish to maintain – and enlarge – our market share”


With our staff, it was different: most of them are not business-oriented but rather good-hearted people that really care about helping our clients. We had to delicately make them understand that what they had been doing up to that moment was not good enough – and data were really useful to provide a concrete supporting evidence. I embarked with my staff in an assessment: I identified 17 areas of services we provided and asked them to point out which were in their opinion the top need of their clients. Then I asked them to re-do the same but putting themselves in the clients’ shoes. In both surveys, our staff identified 8-9 areas of needs.

I then took those surveys to our clients and asked them directly. They came out with just 4 needs. It was the starting point: how we thought and perceived our clients‘ needs did not align with their actual ones. That became the entry point for introducing the use of evidence-based information in our work. Then a siding process took place in the next months, to demonstrate to the staff how useful data could be in everyday work – for example to show clients results to highlight achieved progresses and reinforce their determination.


2014 signed the highest level of donations in the US in 40 years; still the percentage of philanthropic giving has not overpassed the historical 2% of GDP. Do you see signs that an increase in the ability of some virtuous Npos in demonstrating their impact can help pass this long-standing barrier?

Yes it will. We are seeing it when we adopt a more traditional approach to targeting donors. Thanks to our investments, we know which funders prefer which particular programs and so we approach them specifically using our outcomes to demonstrate the huge return on their investment they would be getting. It is a far different story to be able to say: “we are reaching 300 kids with our second-generation program” vs “we reduced the post-traumatic stress level of 20 kids by 35% and we were able to keep that level down for over a year. Would you be willing to give us the necessary resources so another kid can stop harming himself?” That’s different then asking for the same resources to add another kid to the program. Investing in the organizational capacity really helps shifting the mindset of donors towards a result-oriented way of supporting Npos’ work – and finally towards achieving real social impact.



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