Since I was out of the office for a good chunk of July and August, I’ve decided to combine both months into one 10 Great Reads list. But let me be clear, there was still lots going on, I just happened to be (somewhat blissfully) missing it.
From philanthropy’s role in inequality, to climate change preparation, to what the Greek financial crisis teaches us about networks, to civic engagement, to digital’s effect on fundraising, to social impact bond results and pizza on the family farm, they were a great couple of months.
In my (limited) view, below are my 10 favorite reads from the past two months. But because I know I missed things, please add to the list in the comments.
- President of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker made a lot of news this summer, from his announcement of Ford’s shift to focusing on inequality and unrestricted grants, to his July release of a thought-provoking essay in which he took foundations to task. He argued that foundations have been “cutting the pie into smaller slices,” and he instead encouraged funders to embrace “a new era of capacity building investment.” Because, as he put it, “What civil society needs most, and now more than ever, are resilient, durable, fortified institutions that can take on inequality, fight poverty, advance justice and promote dignity and democracy.” Amen! Ford’s move kicked off an excellent Inequality and Philanthropy forum on the HistPhil blog. And Inside Philanthropy‘s David Callahan argued that Walker’s message is about significant change, which may be tough for the sector to hear.
- In a fascinating (and rather depressing) article, Eric Holthaus from Slate talks to climate scientists about how they are personally responding to the climate crisis, particularly how they have “factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in [their] families’ future plans.” Yikes.
- Reserve funds are an incredibly critical (but often misunderstood) aspect of nonprofit financial strategy. But as she always does, Kate Barr from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund provides a clear roadmap to understanding.
- Paul Vandeventer uses the summer’s Greek Euro crisis to illustrate when networks (of which the Eurozone is an excellent example) thrive and when they fail. As he puts it, “Ignoring or giving short shrift to…the fundamental principles by which networks operate wastes precious reserves of time, money, and goodwill, and imperils all the hopeful good that organizations, institutions, and countries set out to achieve when they start down the path of networked action.”
- Late July saw a fascinating gathering of social changemakers around civic engagement, the “Breaking Through” conference, hosted by the Knight Foundation. Keynoter Peter Levine argued “This is the year that we can take back American politics. It’s up to us.” It was a great lineup of speakers and sessions about getting people engaged again. You can see video from the conference here.
- Is digital becoming a gamechanger in fundraising? Some think so. And in August Facebook launched a new Donate button, but is it really all that helpful to nonprofits? Some argue that Facebook is critical. Others think the Donate button is a fail.
- August of 2014 saw the record-breaking ALS Ice Bucket fundraising challenge. Many (including me) were skeptical of the campaign, but it turns out that last summer’s financial windfall helped scientists make a breakthrough in research to fight the disease.
- This August was the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. There were many great articles about where New Orleans has been and is now. But my two favorite were Greater New Orleans Foundation President Albert Ruesga’s Ten-Year Perspective on the philanthropic response, and Andrea Gabor’s New York Times article, The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.
- The first results came in from the New York state social impact bond experiment, and they weren’t great. Goldman Sachs invested in a Rikers Island program that attempted to reduce recidivism among teenagers.The program failed to meet its goals and Goldman lost money. But New York is not giving up, as first Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris said, “This social impact bond allowed the city to test a notion that did not prove successful within the climate we inherited on Rikers. We will continue to use innovative tools on Rikers and elsewhere.”
- I’m always a fan of examples of innovation. NPR provided a glimpse of how family farms are using pizza to reinvent their business model.
Photo Credit: Anne Adrian
In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Jay Geneske, Director of Digital at The Rockefeller Foundation.
Jay directs the Foundation’s digital strategy to engage internal and external audiences, champion organization-wide collaboration, deliver data that informs organization decisions, and pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas. Jay previously served as the Director of Online Communications for Echoing Green, and has also served in digital and brand strategy roles at Carnegie Hall, Shedd Aquarium, and Steppenwolf Theatre.
You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.
Nell: Your role as head of digital for a major foundation is a pretty new kind of position in the world of philanthropy. Obviously the Rockefeller Foundation sees a lot of value (beyond marketing) in digital. How does digital play into the Foundation’s overall strategy?
Jay: Like every other sector, digital has changed the game for social impact. At the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been tasked to pioneer new ways to hear and share innovative ideas and perspectives on serving the needs of poor or vulnerable people in a time of rapid change.
That’s a tall order, but an exciting one.
This remit certainly includes how we utilize digital media to tell the story and impact of our work, to bring valuable information to those working in the sector, and to elevate our staff, grantees, and partners as thought leaders.
But digital goes far beyond traditional communication or marketing.
For external audiences, our digital focus is on influence. A carefully planned Twitter campaign can influence a policy maker to prioritize building resilience to the shocks and stresses facing their city. A data-informed segmented email can make a practitioner think more innovatively about solving a social or environmental problem. A well-crafted blog post syndicated on Medium, LinkedIn or elsewhere can connect our staff members to an important partner in the private sector.
Digital also plays an increasingly critical role for our internal audience. We’re reimagining how we work with each other and our hundreds of external partners by meeting people where they are and embracing nimble digital technology. For example, we’re bringing all of our files to the cloud for easy access around the globe and on mobile devices. We’ve also just launched an internal hub that brings valuable real-time data directly to staff members’ fingertips and also more easily captures and stores the critical informal knowledge and insights—typically stuck in email inboxes—that drive strategic decision-making.
What’s most important is the connective tissue between internal and external audiences, and confronting and embracing the increasing overlap and intersection to make us more effective.
Nell: The Rockefeller Foundation turned 100 in 2013 making it one of the oldest U.S. foundations. But the Foundation obviously works hard to stay relevant amid changing social challenges, technology, modes of communication, etc. What drives the Foundation’s desire and ability to be so nimble?
Jay: Our mission has always been to improve the well-being of humanity. To achieve that mission, we must work in a way that is suited to a rapidly changing world, especially where technology and greater interconnectedness have accelerated change and altered the way people live.
This reality manifests throughout our formal initiatives, such as Digital Jobs Africa, which is connecting Africa’s rapidly growing youth population with jobs in the ICT sector. Technology has also clearly changed the game for how and where we do our work. For example, I’ve awarded grants to networks with a robust online presence with the aim to surface new ideas and connect to new people who are solving big social issues.
But in many ways, the sector is just scratching the surface, particularly around data. As David Henderson from FII recently noted, for data to change the world, we must think beyond software and data visualizations. There is a serious lack of investment and focus on how to turn data into action.
Nell: A big initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation is the 100 Resilient Cities project that works to help cities adapt to the “new normal” of continuous disruption. How are you using digital in this particular project?
Jay: Digital plays a critical role in this initiative where our digital strategy is focused on influencing policy and business leaders and practitioners to focus on building resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges facing the world.
Through this work we’ve learned that content is the key to building influence. Our multichannel editorial strategy centers on creating and curating relevant, insightful, and vibrant content that our audience will find immediately actionable. It’s amazing to see how that content then travels around the social web, especially by politicians and business leaders.
We also know that reach is not the same as influence. Although growth is important, our focus has always been on influencing a specific audience, many of whom may not have huge a Twitter following.
Nell: In your work you talk about “digital storytelling” as a critical component of effective social impact, which goes far beyond a more traditional nonprofit approach to marketing. What does effective digital storytelling look like and what is the return on investment for a nonprofit?
Jay: While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them. I’ve also noticed a fast increase in big brands infusing questionable social change messaging and stories into their communications, and I worry that organizations driving real social impact will be left behind.
The Foundation has invested in storytelling –including launching the free tool Hatch for Good— to help organizations tell stories that are strategically planned, creatively crafted, and designed to achieve measurable outcomes.
In many ways, storytelling is an angle or a focus in social impact communications and marketing. It’s a way to stand out, to inspire action and donations, to drive policy change.
We’ve had tens of thousands of people use Hatch for Good in beta, and what’s become clear is that, for all the good they do, our mission statements are preventing us from telling effective stories. We try to insert them, sometimes word-for-word, into every story. And the result is a story so crowded that our audience never had a chance to take action.
Effective storytelling shows the human consequences of the problem our organizations address—and the solutions that give people hope. Stories about the people whose lives are directly affected by the work, and about the people who join forces with us to create change. These stories exemplify our mission statement, but are not bound by it.
When done strategically, these stories can prove a return on investment, case studies of which are posted on Hatch for Good.
I am back after an amazing three weeks away from the world of social change. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job and the ability it gives me to work each day with incredibly inspiring, passionate, and driven social changemakers.
But as I’ve said before, time away is absolutely critical to feeding your soul and making you a more complete, interesting and effective person. I am so grateful to the amazing guest bloggers who wrote incredible pieces for the blog while I was away (you can read their posts here).
One of the benefits of giving your brain a break is new insight. It occurred to me while I was away that there is a big difference between social change efforts that just exist and those that reach the tipping point of achieving real social change. I work at the nexus between the two because nonprofit leaders often come to me when they hit an inflection point. They desire a big change — to move out of the status quo and take a big leap — but they don’t know how to get there.
Sometimes they make the leap, and sometimes they don’t. And the difference often comes down whether or not they possess (or cultivate) these traits:
Those nonprofits that make it have someone (or a handful of someones) who are the cheerleaders for the change they seek. These are the people who are constantly reminding board members, staff, donors about why change is necessary and all of the great things that will happen if they continue with the hard work. To achieve true change you must have a leader who can see the ultimate goal and rallies everyone together to get there.
To take a big leap (scale your solution, rebuild your board) you must have the confidence that you can do it. And you need the confidence to convince others to join you. You have to “fake it ’til you make it.” Some leaders are really good at this, others are not. It amazes me how important confidence is and how many in the nonprofit sector often lack it. You must fight the fairly normal state in the nonprofit sector of supplication and instead make confident demands for what it will take to achieve the change you seek.
Related to confidence — but different — is a necessary fearlessness. A nonprofit leader I worked with several years ago wanted to dramatically grow her services, and she knew she needed a bigger, more networked board to get there. So she had to get over the fear of asking for new connections. It is terrifying to ask someone to help you in new ways, or to ask for something you’re not sure the other person is willing or able to give, but you don’t get anything unless you ask. The path of change may be really difficult, or it may force you to make hard decisions. But if you want real change you have to face those uncertainties head on.
Changing minds, changing systems, changing habits is really hard work, and you must be dedicated to seeing the change through to the end. I know that the daily work of your nonprofit is already hard work. But I’m talking about a different kind of hard work. It is the hard work of explaining to ineffective board members why they have to resign, or letting poor performing staff members go, or educating donors about how they are holding your organization back, or creating new performance management systems. I have found that those nonprofit leaders who are constantly fighting the urge to settle back into the status quo are the ones who succeed.
It’s not enough to want a bigger, better, more effective organization. You must cultivate the vision, drive, confidence and fearlessness to get there.
Photo Credit: Stuart Anthony
Note: As you know, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. I’ll be back later this week, but I have left you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. The last, but certainly not least, is Antony Bugg-Levine. Antony is CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, a national nonprofit and financial intermediary that works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. Here is his guest post…
When we asked nonprofit leaders to identify top challenges as part of Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, 32% said “achieving long-term sustainability,” by far the most popular response.
What does it take to reach the promised land of sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best measures of organizational sustainability is not stability but adaptive capacity, the ability to act as circumstances require and opportunities allow. A truly sustainable enterprise must have the capacity to nimbly respond to external conditions. A strong balance sheet must allow for flexibility.
In the nonprofit sector, where pursuit of a mission is paramount, the ability to thoughtfully tack toward progress as funding conditions and community needs change is a hallmark of a success. That does not change the reality that our sector is notorious for restricted funding and hampered by a lack of available enterprise-level investment capital.
So, how do organizations build adaptive capacity?
Here are a few ways that nonprofits can build their adaptive “muscle” and be better prepared to change as the environment demands and opportunities allow.
Know your costs.
Nonprofits must understand the true costs of providing programs in order to make informed decisions about whether grants or contracts are able to cover those full costs, and how much subsidy might be required from other sources to fill the gap.
Many times, we see nonprofits use a grant amount as a starting point, and try to design a program that fits with the award amount. Heights and Hills, which provides services for older adults in Brooklyn and their families, asked us to help them take a different approach. Using customized tools, leadership now understands not only the current costs of running particular programs, but also how those costs change based on a variety of factors.
Like Heights and Hills, nonprofits need to be able to answer questions such as:
- “Which programs may be too costly if they are not fully supported by direct revenue?”
- “How do our costs change if we expand a program and need to hire additional staff?”
- “What if the amount of grant funding changes?”
- “Where might collaboration with another organization serve us well?”
Just say “no.”
The social sector attracts passionate activists who have a knack for seeing solutions where others see problems, and who are often driven by a deep inclination to say “yes” to those in need. But in order to build and preserve adaptive capacity and to truly remain mission focus, leaders must protect the nonprofit enterprise and its ability to continue its work. The common practice of accepting pennies on the dollar to deliver programs perpetuates unhealthy funding patterns and expectations. Armed with data about true costs makes it easier to say “no” to opportunities that ultimately detract from an organization’s ability to move the needle on mission.
New York’s Committee for Hispanic Children and Families did just that, and declined to pursue a large government contract because it sapped too many “indirect” resources. While at first glance, it seemed that the small allotment for “overhead” was enough, the amount didn’t nearly cover actual costs associated with the time that executive, finance and administrative staff were spending to keep the program afloat.
Saying “no” to a fiscally unhealthy grant preserves the organization’s ability to serve its clients well into the future. If we want to change embedded, unhealthy funding practices — and perhaps even elements of nonprofit culture that fuel these — we must be more willing to say “no.”
Ultimately, the benefit of adaptive capacity is the freedom to pursue what works. Some programs are more easily measured than others, but nonprofits and our funders need to invest in understanding impact. This is especially critical as we move toward an outcomes-based funding environment.
Scenarios USA, a nonprofit that uses storytelling for youth sex education, found a rare partner in the Ford Foundation when it decided to dramatically change its approach. Scenarios was open to asking, “Are our programs working?” and accepted that its core assumptions were inaccurate. With the Ford Foundation’s support, the organization revamped its program to focus on fostering critical thinking, which has tremendous influence on youth behavior.
Evaluating programs, experimenting with new ways of meeting mission and measuring outcomes over time are necessary to positive social change.
Seek support for major changes.
Money for programs is far more plentiful than money for enterprise-level change. Our survey found that nearly half of nonprofits report that they can have an open dialogue with funders about expanding programs, but just 6% feel comfortable conversing with funders about flexible capital for organizational growth or change.
There are exceptions. The California Community Foundation has partnered with Nonprofit Finance Fund and several others to offer strategy, management, and financial services aimed at strengthening the region’s nonprofits and building the durability of the sector. New York Community Trust has launched an initiative to help small arts organizations navigate various transformations and milestones such as leadership succession, business model changes, and facility renovations or moves. And New York’s Change Capital Fund is a collaboration of 17 foundations and financial institutions that is funding five New York community development organizations to help them refocus their strategies and develop new business models to address persistent poverty more effectively.
It is time to challenge the notion that funders aren’t willing to talk about money for adaptation and adaptive capacity, and to make the case for the right kinds of support.
It is hard to know what will be required of our sector in the years to come, but a steady trend of increased demand seems to indicate that the answer will be, “more.” Limited resources make doing more of the same nearly impossible. We must change the way we approach the challenges of our day, and organizations with adaptive capacity will lead the way.
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Kathy Reich. Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Here is her guest post…
Philanthropy pundits often exhort nonprofits to “act more like businesses.” Usually I disagree; in fact, I think there’s a great deal that businesses could stand to learn from nonprofits.
In at least one area, though, I admit that all too frequently nonprofits lag their for-profit peers. Nonprofits simply do not invest enough time or money in talent assessment, development, and management.
Major national surveys provide a helpful snapshot of the nonprofit sector’s talent troubles. In the Bridgespan Group’s Nonprofit Management Tools and Trends 2014 survey, which polled almost 500 nonprofit organizations about their current management practices, nearly 60 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “hiring, training, and retaining staff is one of our greatest challenges.” Yet the survey found that only 40 percent reported using talent assessment and development tools, and just 38 percent said their organizations engage in leadership succession planning.
Similarly, in the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2015 State of the Nonprofit Sector survey, which included responses from more than 5,400 nonprofits nationwide, respondents were asked to name the top three challenges facing their organizations. “Ability to offer competitive staff pay and/or retain staff” was ranked in the top three by fully 25% of the respondents, behind only “achieving long-term financial sustainability” as one of the top three challenges facing nonprofits. Yet the same survey found that just 37 percent of respondents had invested money or time in staff professional development in the past year. Only 28 percent had given cost-of-living raises, and 18 percent had given raises beyond COLA.
At the Packard Foundation, program officers tell me that they see signs of this underinvestment almost every day. Some problems that our nonprofit grantee partners routinely report:
- Executive turnover is frequent, and often traumatic.
- Nonprofits have a hard time finding appropriate candidates for senior management roles, including CEO, program executives, development directors, and communications directors.
- The leadership many nonprofits have is not reflective of the leadership that they need, or the communities they serve. In most of the fields in which the Packard Foundation works, nonprofit leadership remains predominantly white, male, and middle-aged, even as our country becomes younger, more diverse, and hopefully, more committed to racial and gender equity.
- Emerging leaders under age 45 report high levels of career dissatisfaction, driven in part by lack of professional development and advancement opportunities. In a 2011 Young Nonprofit Professionals Network survey, only 36 percent of respondents said that their organization invested in “bench strength” to develop emerging leadership. Of that group, less than 47 percent said their organization implemented these investments effectively.
Nonprofits and foundations both have critical roles to play in ensuring that the nonprofit sector has a robust, diverse talent pipeline now and in the future. First, foundations need to step up their financial support for leadership. The private sector spends $12 billion annually, an average of $120 per employee, on developing leaders, investing in their management and technical skills so that they can move up the ranks or excel in their current jobs. In contrast, philanthropy’s investment in nonprofit leadership development totals an average of $29 per employee annually.
Foundations can do much more. Some concrete ways that they can help:
- Fund nonprofit overhead so that nonprofits have enough money to pay their people competitively and can have the operations in place necessary to support their staff and manage their talent. Depending on their size and talent needs, some nonprofits may need to hire a Chief Operating Officer, a Human Resources Director, or a Chief Talent Officer.
- Support nonprofits to develop “right-sized” performance assessment and management systems, as well as meaningful succession plans for key leaders.
- Include funds for staff professional and leadership development in project support grants.
- Incentivize nonprofits to develop cultural competency in hiring and management so that they can attract and retain diverse employees.
But foundations cannot tackle this issue alone. No matter what their size, nonprofit boards and executive leadership need to focus on talent issues and ensure they have appropriate plans in place to manage and develop staff for their organizations. They need to implement thoughtful, intentional strategies and process to ensure that they are identifying their own talent needs, assessing the strengths and growth areas of their staff, and providing ongoing development and feedback to all employees, particularly those with high growth potential. And they need to make the case for talent to their funders, along with concrete examples of how investing in leadership capacity will improve outcomes.
In the nonprofit sector, as in business, leadership matters. Let’s be sure we’re all investing our time, and our money, where it counts.
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. He is also a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. Here is his guest post…
When it comes to the debate about the social impact of endowment investments, college and university campuses – not foundations – seem to be where the action is. Foundations have hundreds of billions of dollars in assets but, today, most of the large ones appear to be placing no restrictions whatsoever on how their endowments are invested.
Divestment is hardly a new issue, of course. In the late 1980s, when I was deciding where to go to college, many campuses were racked by a heated debate over divestment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. In the 1990s, the issue was divestment from tobacco companies. Today, a similar debate is playing out over fossil fuels, for-profit prison companies, and other investments
True, most college boards are still refusing to limit their investment options much, if at all. From what I understand, the arguments against divestment that get made in college and university – as well as foundation – boardrooms include that divestment doesn’t accomplish anything, that it’s a board’s fiduciary duty to maximize returns, and that ruling out some investments risks a slippery slope in which an increasing number of industries are ruled out for moral reasons.
But it’s a very live issue in higher education and some institutions are, in fact, drawing boundaries around how their endowments can be invested. They are deciding — usually after sustained student and faculty pressure — that their monies should not support certain industries.
Stanford University divested from coal companies in 2014 and, this year, Syracuse University divested entirely from fossil fuels. “Syracuse has a long record of supporting responsible environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship, and we want to continue that record,” said the school’s Chancellor. “Formalizing our commitment to not invest directly in fossil fuels is one more way we do that.”
Earlier this summer, Columbia University made headlines as the first college or university to divest from the for-profit prison industry, following a student campaign. “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” read a University statement.
But what about private foundation endowments — which Foundation Center estimates to be some $580 billion in total? Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) received a lot of attention last fall with its decision to divest from fossil fuels. Was this decision part of a larger movement among funders?
Evidently not, or at least not yet, as the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the organization I lead, reported in Investing and Social Impact: Practices of Private Foundations. (The report was released in May and is based on a benchmarking survey of private foundations making at least $10 million in grants annually.) RBF is one of very few larger foundations to divest from fossil fuels, or from anything, for that matter — at least so-far. More than 80 percent of the 60 foundations that responded to this portion of our data collection effort said they screen nothing — not fossil fuel companies, tobacco companies, for-profit prisons, or anything else — out of their endowment investments.
Of the small proportion that do some screening, most exclude tobacco companies. Just three have divested their endowments from fossil fuels.
Time will tell whether the decision of RBF and a few others — and the accompanying publicity — will lead more foundations to reflect and then take this step. Of course, large foundations don’t face the kind of pressures colleges do — sit-ins by students, faculty votes, or pledges from alumni to withhold donations, for example.
Still, given all the discussion about aligning investing decisions and the pursuit of social impact, I was surprised how few foundations have placed any restrictions at all on their investments. I have spoken with some foundation CEOs and board members who make an impassioned argument that to do so would be irresponsible and pointless. Interestingly, though, few seem willing to make this argument against connecting investment decisions to social impact publicly.
On the other end of the spectrum in this debate is Clara Miller, president of the FB Heron Foundation, which invests “all our assets for mission.” Miller, who is quite comfortable making her case publicly, argues that foundations are doing “impact investing” whether they know it or not. “Foundations are investing 100 percent of their assets for impact; they just don’t know whether it’s positive or negative,” she said in this CEP conference session in May. “We have a duty of obedience to mission. And that applies to all of our assets.”
Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s probably fairly easy to agree that it’s an important one. I hope foundation boards will engage it.
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Kelly Born, program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Kelly also writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog. Here is her guest post…
In March of 2014, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation launched a new initiative focused on US democracy reform, The Madison Initiative. The overarching goal is to “help create the conditions in which Congress and its members can deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that work for more Americans.”
Our mandate is for a 3-year, exploratory initiative to assess whether and how the Foundation might be able to make a difference here. During this period, we are focused on three central questions:
- Are there solutions and approaches that are worth pursuing?
- Is there ample grantee capacity to pursue these ideas (or can we help build it)?
- Are there funding partners we can work with to make it happen?
In exploring this problem of congressional dysfunction we realized early on that, unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any silver-bullets that will solve this problem – it’s not as if campaign finance reform, nonpartisan redistricting, or increased voter turnout, taken on their own, would resolve our current democratic ails (even setting aside for the moment how hard it would be to actually achieve these changes!).
Regrettably, there is no clear consensus on what to do to improve the system, much less on how to do it. This may be, in part, why Inside Philanthropy awarded The Madison Initiative with 2014’s Big Foundation Bet Most Likely to Fail. Given this, our view has been that current congressional dysfunction is occurring in a system of systems (and sub-systems) that are interacting in complicated ways.
Early on we decided to develop a systems map rather than a theory of change to guide our work (working in close partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation and Kumu, collaborations we’ve written a bit about here). Theories of change typically outline desired (social or environmental) outcomes and then map backwards, linearly, to the activities and inputs necessary to achieve those outcomes. Systems maps are perhaps better suited for more complex, uncertain environments like democracy reform, where cause-and-effect relationships can be entangled and mutually reinforcing, rather than unidirectional.
Version 1.0 of our map includes more than 35 variables we believe are contributing to the problem, distributed across three key domains: Congress, Campaigns and Elections, and Citizens. In light of this complexity, rather than making an initial set of big bets on a few key variables, we have instead spread a series of smaller bets within these systems to see where grantees might gain traction, and what this reveals about the system’s more confounding parts.
The benefits of this approach are many – in fact, I cannot imagine effectively tackling this particular problem any other way. But employing this spread betting approach also involves a few challenges for us at Hewlett, and for our partners and grantees. The trade-offs are worth considering:
- We are acknowledging and respecting complexity, but this can sow seeds of confusion for our partners. Our approach has the essential benefit of taking into account the systemic complexity and interdependency of what we are trying to help change. We are avoiding over-simplifying and thereby misconstruing our reality (a good thing). But we are exploring more than 35 variables (ranging from deteriorating bipartisan relationships to the proliferation of partisan news media), with more than 60 active grantees. This approach can be hard to manage, and harder still to convey to others – especially anyone accustomed to a more linear and readily understandable theory of change.
- Our course correcting helps us learn, but has a real impact on partners. As we diversify our investments to learn more about what works, we will continue to learn more about which efforts are having the most impact on congressional dysfunction, and which are less germane to the problem. As we do, we will necessarily converge (and double down) on a few core interventions, while discontinuing others. This will mean disappointing organizations that we respect and had supported at the outset – an inevitable byproduct of this approach, but unpleasant for all involved.
- Our evidence-based approach risks coming off as overly academic. We are determined to avoid investing in solutions where there is not solid evidence to support their viability vis-à-vis our goals. This helps us avoid squandering funds on interventions that won’t, ultimately, work. But this approach also runs the risk of coming across as standoffish, academic, and idiosyncratic in the eyes of a practitioner-driven field that in some instances may be pursuing work that is harder to (or has yet to be) substantiated by solid research.
We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. But we deeply believe that the social sector shouldn’t shy away from complex problems. We also believe that the benefits of this approach far outweigh the costs. It enables broad-based learning, and truly forces us to constantly re-think the grants we are making. Building in these tough choices, rather than forging ahead with a pre-defined strategy, requires that we not just learn, but that we act on what we discover. And fast.
In short, while beset by a few real challenges, we’re convinced that an emergent path is the best path forward. Surely we will place some wrong bets along the way. But, as a favorite colleague of mine often says, “it’s not like we’re selling cigarettes to children.” All of our grantees are doing great work – ultimately it will (not so simply) be a question of which of these lines of work is most likely to improve Congress.
In 2017, we will go back to our Board of Directors to discuss whether and how The Madison Initiative’s work will continue. In the meantime, we would love to hear how other funders have approached emergent problems like this – and how nonprofits might advise that we manage these inherent challenges as we progress?
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. First up is David Henderson, Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David also writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. Here is his guest post…
In early June I was invited to be on a data mining panel at the Stanford Social Innovation Review Data on Purpose conference. The conference was full of nonprofit executives interested in tapping the big data revolution for social good. Naturally, the panel moderator asked us panelist to weigh in on if, and how, data was changing the social sector. Characteristically, I turned a feel-good question into a critique of the state of analytics in the social sector, which I’ve written about elsewhere and will expand on here.
Data is not changing the social sector. I would argue it’s not changing the world either. While it is very likely that data is changing your world, I do not believe data is changing the world.
For all the talk about how data is revolutionizing the world and that software is eating everyone’s lunch, the fact is that for the over two billion people who have no lunch to eat (literally and figuratively), the impact of the data revolution is muted, if nonexistent all together. Changing the world indeed.
The corporate data revolution has largely been fueled by data exhaust. Data exhaust is comprised of the various digital breadcrumbs you and I leave all over the Internet but that we might not think about as data in a traditional sense. For example, companies like Facebook and Amazon don’t simply log data when you click “submit”, they track your every movement around the Internet, logging every click and clack, allowing unprecedented marketing optimization. All these additional metrics are data exhaust, as consumers are almost passively generating data marketers can capture and monetize for almost nothing.
On the social sector data conference circuit, countless data-wonk hopefuls mindlessly espouse all the incredible things nonprofits can do now that data acquisition costs have been driven almost to zero. This is nonsense, as the social sector has no such data exhaust analogue, which is why the social sector doesn’t truly have big data.
Nonprofits often work with populations with a number of barriers, which drives up the cost of data acquisition relative to for-profit counterparts. Just some of the data collection barriers nonprofits grapple with include working with populations with low levels of literacy or limited to no access to technology. How exactly is one going to generate digital exhaust without any digital possessions in the first place, or while working three jobs to support her family?
Obviously, you don’t. The barriers too many people face in this world are exactly why nonprofits are in the business of social change in the first place. But it is also why we are so poorly poised to capitalize on the alleged data ubiquity, as that revolution is not permeating class boundaries to the extent technology evangelists would have us believe.
Another reason why data is not changing the world, or rather, why the social sector is failing to change the world with data, is that by and large we simply are not investing in the necessary capacity to turn data into insights.
While a new “data for the social sector” company with an unfortunate misspelling of a common word seems to pop up every day, there are very few companies actually building the tools the sector needs to put data in to action. Meanwhile, our technological overlords in Silicon Valley are depressingly stuck on the assumption that innovation in the social sector means fundraising software. Sigh.
If we want to use data to change the world, we need to think beyond software tools and simple (if colorful) data visualizations. Nonprofits need to invest in building their own analytical capacity, both by hiring analysts and also by investing in the entire staff’s ability to be intelligent consumers of data analysis.
Illusion of Insight
Everyone loves the idea of being data driven, but very few organizations actually want to make the investment. My employer, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), did make that investment. In turn, FII is now able to not only run regressions and build decision tree models, but can continuously learn from its data, augmenting every level of the organization from Chief Executive to line staff.
That investment is not cheap. Worse yet, like any good analyst, I can be a major buzz-kill. Much of my time is spent explaining why a particular regression coefficient doesn’t necessarily mean we are super awesome. In fact, a good analyst can make you less sure of your social impact.
But facing the tough reality paves the way to real impact. We cannot collectively do more without exactingly quantifying how little we’ve accomplished. These are tough truths, and most nonprofits would rather assume the hypothesis of their greatness, leaving no room for data’s insights.
The Path Forward
Just because data is not changing the world does not mean data cannot change the world. I believe it can, which is why I do what I do. While by and large nonprofits fail to invest in rigorous analysis, organizations like GiveDirectly are leading by example, showing what is possible when fact is paramount to fundraising.
Ultimately, being data driven is less about statistical techniques and more about a relentless commitment to the truth. The truth is that data is not changing the world. But if we, as a sector, can elevate the truth above all else, then we might just be able to change the world after all.