How Not To Get Lost in Wonderland: Crafting Your Question Zero

December 20, 2018 | Juliette Price, Director of The Albany Promise & Rushka Tcholakova, VP of Community Impact at United Way GCR

Imagine for a moment that you are spending a weekend in nature, relaxing and getting your share of fresh air. You are staying at a hotel in a small town, on a clearly marked road. 

Now imagine that you decide to take a hike—just a short walk in the woods, on clearly marked trails and with plenty of food, water, and supplies, including a map, compass, and the GPS device in your phone. As the sun starts to set, you realize that you made a wrong turn somewhere along the way and you’re lost. Not to panic, you pull out your tools—you enter the hotel’s address into the GPS and up pops a set of directions for how to get back. Or maybe your phone died, so you pull out your map and compass and start to identify where you are, where the hotel is, and which direction you need to walk in to get back. 

In no time at all, you’re back at the hotel, sipping hot cocoa from a mug in front of the fire.

Now imagine the scenario in just a slightly different way. You realize you’re lost in the woods, you pull out your GPS, map, and compass—but you don’t know where your hotel is. You don’t even know which town you’re staying in. You’re unable to make a decision—good or bad decision—about which trail to choose because you don’t know where you’re trying to go.

As Alice observed in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Today, more and more pressure is mounting on organizations to demonstrate their impact—empirically, with data—a shift away from annual reports that featured one or two anecdotal stories. In response, organizations are engaging with research and evaluation partners that can help them answer the question what impact are you having? However, before an organization can begin to answer this question, there’s an essential question that comes before, that most organizations aren’t asking themselves—Question Zero.

Question Zero comes before all other questions you have about your organization—Are we having an impact? Are we delivering services to the people we’re trying to help? Are the services we’re providing making a difference? Just as the compass and map were useless when you didn’t have a destination, so too are questions about impact if you don’t know what specific problem you’re trying to solve. Slightly maddening, isn’t it?

Question Zero helps clarify all this, by engaging in a process to help you identify what specific problem are you trying to solve and for whom. Let’s use an example to illustrate.

Imagine you run an agency that provides job training and placement to individuals looking to become employed. Halfway through the year, you’re interested in knowing if your program is having an impact. You partner with an organization to produce an analysis, and the data shows you’ve had 50 individuals enroll in the training and placement program, 25 of whom have successfully completed and landed a job. Frustrated, you report to your staff and investors that you’re having a 50% success rate, much lower than you had thought.

But a deeper dive reveals a much different picture. After engaging the agency in a conversation about their Question Zero, we identify that this agency was formed to serve veterans returning to the workforce, specifically linking their work experience in the armed forces to job placement in building trades, such as welding. When the research team takes a second pass at the analysis, they find that 30 of the 50 program participants were veterans, and their success rate in the program was 83%.

Question Zero pushes us to bring specificity to our work, to define very clearly and specifically what our intended impact and population is. Specificity can feel like a hard principle to stick to in the social sector, where practitioners often see such need, that mission creep or a come-one-come-all approach can begin to take over. Unfortunately, this lack of specificity often leads to diminished impact, as universal approaches rarely have impact across all populations.

Ultimately, social sector work is about delivering results—so a great place to start is defining what result and for whom. Having a clear Question Zero is key to ensuring that your organization or program won’t go down any rabbit holes or get lost in Wonderland. 

About the Article:

The Albany Promise Partnership was selected to participate in Harvard University’s Education Redesign Lab inaugural Leadership Institute, a week-long intensive aimed at deepening community leadership capacity to drive systems change. United Way of the Greater Capital Region, the Center for Economic Growth, and the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals attended the institute as part of the Albany delegation. A series of posts will detail some of the learnings from the institute. 

About the Authors:

JulietteJuliette serves as the director of The Albany Promise, a cross-sector collective impact partnership in Albany, NY that facilitates the improvement of educational outcomes for the city’s most vulnerable students using a shared vision, collective action, and rigorous continuous improvement. Juliette was awarded the White House Champion of Change award in 2016 for her work in this field. Previously, she worked for State University of New York Chancellor, managing various aspects of the education pipeline. 

Is your organization unclear about its Question Zero? Contact us at and let’s discuss how we can help. 

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RushkaRushka serves as senior vice president of community impact at United Way of the Greater Capital Region. She has over a decade of experience in helping nonprofits design financial empowerment programs and leading coalitions toward collective impact. She has served in senior roles in the non-profit sector where she led change efforts, expanded programs and services, and coached organizations seeking to create meaningful financial stability. 

Is your organization interested in strengthening its financial capability work? Contact us at and let’s discuss how we can help.

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