When Mario Morino’s book Leap of Reason came out in 2011 I called it a Call to Arms for the Nonprofit Sector, because I believe Mario was challenging the nonprofit sector to undergo a complete shift from “doing good work” to becoming a performance management sector. And in recent year we are witnessing an ever-increasing effort to get nonprofits to demonstrate the results of their work. The companion to Leap of Reason, Working Hard and Working Well by David Hunter was released last week, and it makes an interesting follow up.
David has the same no-nonsense, tell it like it is, style that I love about Mario. David writes that his book “is a response to my perception that the social sector has failed, so far, to live up to its promise.” But he doesn’t just blame the nonprofits, he also finds fault with their funders and says his book is also “an admonishment to those funders who demand performance in which they don’t invest, results for which they don’t pay, and accountability from which they exempt themselves.” Ah, how true!
As David explains it, performance management has been given a bad rap in the nonprofit sector because it has so often been “compliance management,” something that was shoved down nonprofit throats by government or private funders seeking to limit the risk of their investments, rather than something that nonprofits themselves designed in order to create more effective social change.
David provides numerous nonprofit case studies that illustrate this new performance management mindset. My favorite was the Our Piece of the Pie case study, a broad social services nonprofit in Connecticut that had a watershed moment when they decided to focus their services just on youth. From that difficult and courageous decision, the nonprofit eventually transferred 600 clients, 30 employees and $1million to 3 local nonprofits that were a better fit for those outlier programs. As David explained, “It is rare for an organization to reach such strategic clarity…and even rarer to have the courage to challenge the continued relevance of its legacy programs and services.” Absolutely! When a nonprofit focuses their efforts on what they do best, instead of what they have always done, it can transform the organization and ultimately result in better outcomes.
The aim of David’s book is to leave a detailed model for nonprofits and consultants to use to create performance-based organizations. My favorite part of his model is “result-focused budgeting” where he takes nonprofits and funders to task for using “a shoestring budget that is inadequate to support the capacity building needed for high performance.” Amen to that! You simply CANNOT create high quality outcomes when you lack organizational capacity. The two will not coexist.
David spends the bulk of the book describing in detail the 4-day theory of change workshop he uses with nonprofits. While I applaud the probing nature of his model and its focus on creating clarity and metrics, I have some problems with the approach. His model assumes an organization can determine mission, vision, strategic direction and performance metrics in an isolated room over 4 days. But the reality is that nonprofits can no longer create their value proposition in a vacuum. A nonprofit must get outside the organization and understand the external marketplace of changing demographics, community needs, and competing solutions in order to then chart their course.
At the end of the day, though, I think David’s book adds tremendous value to the sector. He demands that nonprofits start asking hard questions and making difficult decisions. Ultimately David is encouraging nonprofits to move from “compliance management” to true performance management where they chart their own course and determine what it is they exist to do and whether they are doing that, not in order to garner more funding, but in order to ensure that they are actually making a difference for their clients.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jim Canales. Jim is President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, the largest multi-issue foundation focused exclusively on the state of California. Under his leadership, the foundation has adopted a more targeted approach in its grantmaking programs, focusing on three areas — Arts, California Democracy and Youth — of critical significance to the state’s future. Jim also serves on the boards of Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the College Access Foundation of California.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: One of the four grantmaking principles of the Irvine Foundation is “Invest in Organizations,” meaning that you are committed to providing grants to build nonprofit organizations (evaluation, operating support, infrastructure). This is a pretty radical idea for most foundations. What do you think holds other foundations back from this kind of investment and what will it take to get more of them to embrace the idea of organization building as opposed to just supporting direct programs?
Jim: This question of general operating support versus project support has been an ongoing debate in the nonprofit sector, and I’d like to suggest that we may be creating for ourselves a false dichotomy that may not be helpful. I’d suggest we focus on the end goal, not the means. Let’s start by asking the question: How can we maximize impact toward the shared goals of a foundation and its grantees? By asking the question in that way, we naturally have to explore whether we are investing sufficient resources, in the right ways, so that our grantee can have the impact we both seek.
That’s how we try to approach our work at Irvine. At times, we may make grants for general operating support; in other cases, our grants would not be characterized that way – and yet we try to ensure we are investing the necessary resources for the organization to achieve its goals. That will, by necessity, require investment in the infrastructure or organizational development needs that are critical to success. Without that support, whatever project or program we’re funding can’t and won’t have the impact we both seek.
Another part of this question presupposes that foundation staff are able to recognize and address organizational needs. Because we believe that’s an important ability, you will notice that each of Irvine’s program directors has held senior positions in nonprofit organizations. Each of them brings an understanding of organizational development, financial management, board development and all that it takes for an organization to succeed and thrive.
Nell: The Irvine Foundation tends to be fairly transparent in its work and even does an annual survey to gauge how the foundation is viewed by grantees, the social sector, other philanthropists, etc. What do you gain from this survey and how do you integrate what you find into your work going forward?
Jim: This goes back to the time we adopted our current strategic directions in Arts, California Democracy and Youth. At that time, a task force of board members and senior staff explored the question: How will we know we are making a difference? Out of that exploration came a framework that we use to assess our performance on an annual basis, and one of the key elements of that framework is constituent feedback.
Feedback is critically important in philanthropy. If you look at foundation initiatives that have failed — and I would include some of our own — one common theme is that feedback loops were not sufficiently robust. Grantees often are reluctant to come forward with bad news or criticism. And our sector doesn’t have a strong track record of consistently gathering candid feedback from our various constituents, whether that’s grantees or other stakeholders.
Phil Buchanan and his colleagues at the Center for Effective Philanthropy have played a catalytic role in improving philanthropy’s feedback loops through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and other assessment tools. Irvine has commissioned two grantee surveys from CEP over the last seven years. And last year, we commissioned a separate stakeholder survey gathering opinions from leaders in our fields and the nonprofit and philanthropy community in general.
In each of these cases, we have found the data immensely valuable and used it to improve our performance. And we’ve tried to be transparent about it: We posted the results of the grantee perception reports on our website, and, more recently, I described what we had learned from the stakeholder report of 2012. In all instances we have sought to describe how we intended to use these findings to improve our work going forward.
There does remain, however, one area we have not fully explored: So far, we haven’t done very much to gather feedback from the people who benefit from the work that we support, which is obviously a critical constituent for any foundation. But we are following what others are doing in this regard to see what they have learned and how it might apply to us. An example of that is YouthTruth, the national survey of high school students that CEP developed in partnership with the Gates Foundation. I commend the article that Phil and others authored in the recent Stanford Social Innovation Review on this very topic.
Nell: One of the things that came out of your survey was a desire to see the Foundation take more risks. What does taking more risks mean to the Irvine Foundation and how do you think you will go about doing that in the coming years?
Jim: We have to start by defining risk. At Irvine, we’re not interested in risk for risk’s sake. Rather we are trying to understand the relationship between risk and reward and our tolerance for ambiguity and even failure. In the context of philanthropy, I think risk is about trying to balance the need to invest our resources wisely, while also taking advantage of the fact that we have very few restrictions on how we invest those resources.
For those of us in endowed foundations, we have much to learn about risk-taking from our investment colleagues who think about it in the context of managing a foundation’s endowment. And we have benefited from discussions amongst our program and investment teams on this subject. Our investment colleagues are willing to take risks on investments that offer the potential for greater return. But they know that to maximize returns over the long run, you need to have a balanced portfolio. So it’s not just about taking lots of risks; it’s about balance and a portfolio approach.
And ultimately, part of taking risk is about being comfortable with failure and learning from it. As part of our annual report on the foundation’s progress, we have a section that covers what we’re learning from our programmatic work and how those lessons can be used to further improve our strategies.
Nell: The Irvine Foundation is very much focused on evaluation, yet outcomes measurement is still difficult for the majority of nonprofits to achieve, given that most nonprofit funding sources aren’t interested in funding it. How do we get past the catch-22 of not being able to find funding for evaluation, but increasingly needing evaluation to get funding?
Jim: We approach evaluation as a tool that enables us to understand the effectiveness of key programs and initiatives, to learn from the progress and challenges along the way, and to demonstrate the value of approaches that will have an impact. In our experience, it is important to think carefully at the outset about what stage of development the work is in and to align the evaluation accordingly. We cannot evaluate everything, so we need to be selective about when and why we choose to use this tool.
I see evidence of a change underway in how the social sector and philanthropy approach evaluation. There is emerging greater interest in tools for measuring progress and impact. The proliferation of assessment tools available from organizations like CEP and PerformWell suggest that we’re moving beyond talking about the problem to developing real solutions.
As a complement to this, we are broadening our understanding about the purpose of evaluation. More and more foundations view evaluation less as the thumbs-up or thumbs-down audit and more as a tool for learning, strategic refinement and improvement. It’s been interesting to see foundations create senior-level roles like Chief Learning Officer or Director of Strategic Learning, as an indication of the value and importance of this work. I am of the belief that the more we shift toward evaluation as a tool for learning and improvement, the more likely we can have the impact we seek. At the same time, that is not to suggest that we should not be clear-eyed about whether we are achieving what we set out to achieve, which is an important role for evaluation activity.
Nell: In 2010 President Obama appointed you to the White House Council for Community Solutions to come up with recommendations about how to address the large population of Americans aged 16 to 24 who are not in school or work. What do you think the role of the federal government should be in creating innovative solutions to “disconnected youth” in America? And what do you think is the role of government more broadly in social innovation?
Jim: It was a privilege to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions with a group of committed and dedicated leaders from across the country. The experience underscored yet again the critical importance of building relationships between philanthropy and government. In fact, an interesting study on this topic of cross-sector partnerships was recently published by the University of Southern California’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. One of its conclusions is that in many cities and states, we’re starting to see a concerted effort to develop and institutionalize more of these partnerships.
We know that many of the innovations that foundations are working on need the engagement and partnership of government to increase their impact and to bring those solutions to scale. A good example for Irvine is the ways in which our Youth program is partnering with state and local government to reform high school education in California.
For the past six years, our Youth program has been working to build the field of Linked Learning — an educational approach that integrates rigorous academics with career-based learning. It has demonstrated success at increasing high school graduation and college attendance rates. And after a lot of work, Linked Learning is now available to students in nine school districts in California.
This year, thanks to a pilot program sponsored by the state Education Department, an additional 63 school districts have committed to Linked Learning. When the program is fully implemented, Linked Learning will be available to more than a third of high school students in California. That’s not something that Irvine or the nonprofit sector could ever have done by itself. So for the state to be launching this kind of pilot program underscores the importance of these partnerships.
As for the work of the White House Council and its focus on what we called “opportunity youth,” the fact that the White House raised this up as a critical issue for our country was really important for this often-ignored population. And the Council’s work continues to live on: most recently, FSG issued a report that serves as a framework for how different stakeholders can improve outcomes for this population of youth who are neither in school nor participating in the job market.
For our part, the focus on out-of-school youth complements the work of our Youth program. A little over a year ago, we launched an initiative to extend the Linked Learning approach to this population as a way to help them re-engage with education. Improving outcomes for this population is so critical — it represents an immense opportunity for our economy and society and for the youth and their families who want to create a better future for themselves.
The gloves came off in February. There was enough criticism to go around from foundation decision making and use of evaluations, to Millennial social entrepreneurs, to American charity, to nonprofit versus for-profit, to the overwhelming politeness of the nonprofit sector, it seems everything was up for debate. But that’s okay with me — I think controversy can be an incredible aid for pushing thinking forward.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in February in social innovation. But, as always, let me know in the comments what caught your eye over the past month. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The Center for Effective Philanthropy released a report on nonprofit performance assessment that criticized funders for 1) not being willing to pay for evaluations and 2) being more interested in data that is helpful to the foundation, not the nonprofit. Beth Kanter chimes in with some tools for becoming a “data informed” nonprofit.
- While we’re on the topic of foundations, “transparency” is becoming a real buzzword for them lately, and Lucy Bernholz digs deeper into recent examples, while James Irvine Foundation president Jim Canales (who will be the subject of this blog’s March interview) practices some real transparency by reacting to recent controversy about the foundation’s new arts strategy.
- And what about the flood of Millennials wanting to be the next great social entrepreneur? Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, Mike McGlade provides a cautionary (and potentially controversial) tale to Millennials seeking to become a social entrepreneur. As he says “Before you don the social entrepreneur title and dive into building your enterprise consider if you need more experience to realize your idea. If you do, set down your entrepreneur ego and find a job. You need to get smart to make a difference.”
- Does America, one of the most charitable countries, have a hard time accepting charity itself? The controversy surrounding a United Arab Emirates gift to Joplin, MO after it was devastated by a May 2011 tornado makes Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill wonder if America is no longer the self-sufficient, munificent benefactor it once was.
- In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Caroline Preston describes how politeness is holding the nonprofit sector back. (It reminds me of this blog post a couple of years back).
- The Dowser blog interviews Munro Richardson c0-founder of startup MyEDMatch, an innovative website that matches teachers with opportunities across the country, to address the problem of teacher turnover.
- In keeping with the growing drumbeat to connect the disparate nonprofit sector, Beth Simone Novack calls for digitizing nonprofit 990 data in order to “help the neediest among us access better services, nonprofit providers to become more effective and efficient, and everyone to understand the role of the nonprofit sector in our economy better.”
- The Nonprofit Finance Fund created a great graphic that demonstrates the core issues facing small nonprofits and what they and funders can do about them.
- Writing on the Idealistics blog, David Henderson suggests a process, based on how businesses maximize profits, for how nonprofits can use data to maximize outcomes.
- If you really want to change the world is it better to work in the nonprofit sector, or make money in the for-profit sector and give it away? William MacAskill and Brooke Allen provide a thought-provoking (and sometimes maddening) debate on the issue. MacAskill says don’t get a job at a nonprofit, and Brooke Allen argues Wall Street is not the answer.
Photo Credit: Tim Pierce
A new report from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64 gives us the first real glimpse into the minds of the next generation of philanthropists, and it’s fascinating. These are not your father’s philanthropists. Millennial and GenX donors (wealthy individuals, or individuals who will inherit wealth, born between 1964-2000) will control more philanthropic dollars than any previous generation. And more importantly, they think about giving in very different ways than their parents or grandparents did. Which means nonprofits need to pay attention.
This next generation of philanthropists is so critical because it’s estimated that $41 trillion will transfer from the Baby Boom to these next generations in the next 40 years. And since much of this wealth could become philanthropic, some have predicted “a new golden age of philanthropy.”
But it’s not just the unprecedented wealth that makes this new generation of philanthropists so important, it’s the fact that they want to fundamentally change philanthropy. According to the report: “They want to make philanthropy more impactful, more hands on, more networked.”
The key findings from the report are that these NextGen donors are:
- Focused on Impact. “They see previous generations as more motivated by a desire for recognition or social requirements, while they see themselves as focused on impact, first and foremost.”
- Giving Based on Values. “They fund many of the same causes that their families support and even give locally, so long as that philanthropy fits with their personal values.”
- Looking to Be Engaged. “Giving without significant, hands-on engagement feels to them like a hollow investment with little assurance of impact.”
- Paving Their Own Way. “While they respect their families’ legacies and continue to give to similar causes and in similar ways as their families, they are also eager to revolutionize philanthropy.”
This report is further proof of the major trends changing the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Given where the sector is heading, there are three things nonprofit leaders should understand and embrace:
- Outcomes are here to stay. In order to compete for funding you must be able to prove the results of what you are doing, what change you are creating. NextGen donors are doing their homework and want to understand what impact their dollars will have. To stay relevant, you need to start by creating a theory of change and then figure out how you can being managing to outcomes.
- Giving has gone social. NextGen donors rely heavily on their social networks to make decisions, including their giving. And they offer their knowledge of worthy causes to their friends as well. So if you aren’t part of the social network you will be left behind. Start to open your organization to become a networked nonprofit and watch your support and influence grow.
- Donors are more than a checkbook. This next generation of donors doesn’t want to just write a check, have their name on a wall and be done with it. They want to really get to know the causes in which they invest. And the word “invest” is an apt one. These donors want to give money, time, mind-share, networks to things they believe in. And if you can employ that passion and investment effectively you will get so much more than just dollars. So figure out how to engage donors in much deeper, more meaningful ways.
This is a really exciting time for philanthropy and ultimately for the nonprofit sector it funds. But it’s up to nonprofit leaders to understand these fundamental shifts and adapt accordingly.
Photo Credit: www.nextgendonors.org
As I’ve said many times before, it’s no longer enough for nonprofits to do “good work.” Funders, policy makers, board members are increasingly demanding that nonprofits explain what change they exist to create. With increasing competition for social change dollars it is absolutely crucial that nonprofit organizations develop their own theory of change. This Social Velocity webinar “The Power of a Theory of Change” can help you do just that.
A theory of change is basically an argument for why a nonprofit exists. It describes how an organization uses community resources (money, volunteers, clients) to perform a set of activities which result in changes to the clients’ lives (outcomes) and changes to broader communities, institutions, or systems (impact).
Essentially a theory of change describes how a nonprofit creates social change.
It used to be enough for a nonprofit to talk about what it produced (or outputs), such as meals served in a soup kitchen, hours spent reading to a child, beds provided in a homeless shelter, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world where there are fewer and fewer dollars and more and more nonprofits fighting for those dollars, people are increasingly asking the question “To What End?” So what if you created outputs, did anything really change because of your work? Did the lives of those in your program change and did the community change?
That’s where a theory of change comes in. If you can articulate what change you hope your organization is creating, then with that fundamental building block in place you can:
- Chart a strategic direction
- Prove your results
- Secure more support for your organization
And ultimately achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: sustainable community change.
The “Power of a Theory of Change” webinar will help you:
- Understand what a theory of change is and how it can help your nonprofit
- Develop your nonprofit’s own theory of change
- Connect your mission to your new theory of change
- Learn how to use your theory of change to chart a strategic direction
- Use your theory of change to attract more funding
- Help your board understand its power
And remember, all Social Velocity webinars are available as recorded downloads, so even if you can’t make this date and time you can still register for the webinar and get access to all of the content.
Photo Credit: frank.itlab.us
Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood hunger in America, wrote a really interesting post recently. He argues that nonprofits must be more bold, that the risk aversion that defines the sector is itself holding nonprofits back from creating change.
Shore encourages nonprofit leaders to figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish:
Nonprofit organizations would be well served to step back from the day-to-day operations and ask themselves what success means, how will they know when they have accomplished their mission, and how will they measure it along the way. It sounds like common sense, but almost no one does it, in part because it’s so hard to do. But if you answer those questions with precision and clarity, and articulate the goal you hope to achieve, everything else falls into place.
And Bill is not alone in making this charge to the nonprofit sector. The Case Foundation, founded by Steve and Jean Case who made millions from AOL, has made its focus getting nonprofits to be more bold, to Be Fearless.
But if we are going to ask nonprofits to think bigger we have to address the elephant in the room: money. Nonprofit leaders often put themselves in a vicious cycle of thinking they don’t have enough money to be risky, so they don’t create ambitious goals, and then their lack of ambition impedes greater outside investment.
It is in fact the very act of being bold that inspires action and investment, that marshals resources to do the impossible. The most obvious example is John F. Kennedy’s 1962 charge to “to go to the moon in this decade.” At the time, the goal he set was crazy. NASA had no idea how they were going to make that happen, and they were already behind the Russian space program. But the very fact that the goal was set, and set so publicly, was inspiring. That simple act of inspiration moved people, money, resources. And Kennedy’s goal came to fruition in July of 1969. The impossible became possible simply because he set a goal.
Often nonprofit leaders are hesitant to set a bold goal because they know they currently don’t have the money, staff, relationships to make it happen. They don’t want to set a goal whose execution is not readily evident. So often nonprofit leaders start from a point of scarcity. They ask the question:
“How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?”
Instead, nonprofit leaders need to start asking the question:
“How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
It may seem like semantics, but I believe the distinction is profound. Instead of money holding you back, money becomes a tool to employ in accomplishing something much bigger. If you start by setting bold goals about what change you want to create, that very act, the act of putting a stake in the sand, can inspire. And that inspiration can attract the things you need to make your goal a reality.
In order to set bold goals, nonprofit leaders need to remember why they started their organization in the first place and why they continue to come to work each day. What is that passionate resolve that keeps you going every day? Why are you pouring your heart and soul into the work? What ultimately are you trying to change about the world we live in?
Start there. Create your bold goal from that place. Remove the obstacle of not having enough and watch how you suddenly have more than you could have ever imagined. That’s where real change begins.
Photo Credit: Mission Controls celebrates the moon landing, NASA.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Mark Hecker, Executive Director of Reach Incorporated. Reach develops confident readers and capable leaders by training teens to teach elementary school students, creating academic benefit for both. Mark’s passion for those being failed by today’s educational structures led him to create Reach in 2009. By trusting learners with real responsibility for real outcomes, Mark believes that our young people can drive the change needed in today’s schools. He is the 2006 Washington, D.C. Social Worker of the Year and a 2011 Echoing Green Fellow and writes for the UnSectored blog.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Reach Incorporated has a really innovative approach to literacy tutoring in that you use struggling adolescent readers to teach younger children how to read. Given the countless approaches to teaching literacy that have been around for decades why do you think that yours is the right approach and what results are you seeing so far?
Mark: Throughout time young people have been most successful in schools that connect student learning to the students’ experience of the world. As the contemporary education reform movement has created a growing disconnect between the learners and their lives, Reach represents a return to the most effective ingredients of successful education across the years: individualization, relevance, inspiration, and trust.
We know two things about reading. First, students only see improvement when they practice at, or just above, their current reading level. Second, as students age, motivation overtakes obedience as the driver of student engagement. In DC, 85% of public school students get to high school reading below grade level. In a world of specific standards and rigid learning objectives, there is simply no place in the high school curriculum for students to get the targeted literacy instruction they need to experience improvement. Today’s teens – because we have failed them – require the opportunity to experience dramatic academic improvement in an environment that is both empowering and engaging.
Beyond the mechanics of our model, a familiar adage from Ben Franklin captures it well: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” We trust students to be significant participants in their own education. It’s the only way that real learning occurs.
Though still young, we have seen some promising early results. Our program is after-school, but our tutors have seen GPA improvement of up to 125%. Additionally, participating elementary school students have seen reading growth above that of non-participating peers. Finally, our tutors see significant reading growth, improved school engagement, increased rates of promotion, and exceptional school retention rates.
Nell: How have you gone about finding funders willing to invest in an innovative model like Reach? What is your approach to financing your organization?
Mark: When asked this question, I generally reply by smiling and saying, “I’m really charming.” That’s obviously not the truth.
I have an incredible passion for this work, and I get to share the stories of the amazing tutors and students impacted by the work we help them do. By telling the stories of our participants, we are able to inspire others to invest in the possibility that our participants present. Currently, approximately 50% of our funding comes from foundations. We also have an incredible army of 300-400 individual supporters that are committed to our young people; they provide about 35% of the organization’s funding. The remaining financial support comes from corporations and special events.
While the world of social innovation talks often of efficiency, outcomes, and scale, I’ve found that many are drawn to our work because of their strong belief in justice. DC students are not getting the education they deserve. Reach, with the help of our tutors, offers a multi-directional intervention that improves outcomes for all participants. Our supporters believe in possibility, and they are excited by the potential of our model.
As Reach’s Board of Directors and I look to the future, we know that financial sustainability must be a constant consideration. To build the foundation to support our eventual growth, our focus now is entirely on program quality. We understand that, for the immediate future, we will be entirely donor dependent. Proof of concept takes time.
By pursuing greatness, we believe that we will eventually have opportunities to create revenue through training, curriculum development, and maybe even children’s book sales. For now, we will build the program our kids deserve by finding supporters that believe in our path.
Nell: As a small nonprofit how do you manage increasing pressure to measure outcomes with a lack of available evaluation funding?
Mark: We’ve simply made an organizational commitment to evaluating our work. We do this knowing that our financial investment will not yield immediate returns as it takes time to develop organizationally appropriate metrics. So, to be brief, we simply look at evaluation as part of the cost of business. It’s overhead. It’s necessary.
That being said, it’s exceedingly frustrating that we have never once received funding to be used specifically for the purpose of evaluation.
For now, we respond to this tension by narrowing our focus on five specific metrics: progress toward grade-level reading, GPA growth, efficacy beliefs, promotion to the next grade, and school retention. While we don’t have the capacity to measure everything, we can measure these five indicators – and each has a strong correlation to our long-term goals: high school completion, college success, and stable employment.
To be frank, the recent focus on outcomes measurement leads many organizations to simply lie about what they know about their work. True evaluation takes time and money. To balance this tension, we narrow our focus and work within our means.
Nell: You were named an Echoing Green fellow in 2011. How has that experience been? What have you learned and how has it helped Reach so far?
Mark: Being part of the Echoing Green family has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. While I could speak about it indefinitely, I’ll limit myself to highlighting three ways that the fellowship has supported my leadership and Reach’s work.
- When I speak to educators about my work, they generally start asking technical questions about curriculum and content. When speaking to other Echoing Green fellows, conversations happen outside this specific content. They know they’re not experts in literacy just like I know I’m no expert in Kenya’s sanitation infrastructure or Liberia’s health system. By skipping the surface level content, the conversations quickly go to a place of values, leadership, and strategy.
- Though this hasn’t always been the case, Echoing Green has recently made an effort to build up the strength of the alumni network. It has been particularly exciting to see how responsive Echoing Green alums have been. When I’ve reached out to leaders at some established and exceptional organizations, I’ve been shocked by the alacrity with which they respond. The level of support has been amazing and humbling.
- Lastly, the community is valuable simply in that it provides knowledge that we’re not alone in this work. Starting an organization has been the loneliest and most difficult experience of my life. Through Echoing Green’s network, I can now reach out to others experiencing similar challenges and know that they have an understanding of the difficulties I face on a regular basis. Because of Echoing Green, I no longer feel alone.
Nell: In a recent blog post on UnSectored you talked about the nonprofit trade-off between effectiveness and faster growth. What are your plans for Reach’s growth and how will you accomplish it?
Mark: Reach’s work is subtly revolutionary. When we say we believe all students have the ability to contribute to the learning of others, everyone agrees. When we ask that those students (our tutors) be trusted with real responsibility, adults get scared. To be sure, the most important thing we must do is to demonstrate that this work can be done. For that reason, we’re currently much more interested in being great than being big. That may mean staying small for a while; we’re okay with that.
To understand what growth can look like, one has to understand the context in DC. Approximately 4,000 students entered high school in DC this fall. Recent statistics would indicate that 3,400 of these students are reading below grade level and approximately 2,300 of them are more than two grades below level. Currently, we serve approximately 50 of these students (and they serve 50 elementary school students). We aim to make DC a better place; that significantly influences the way we think about growth. We have to think about the level of saturation needed to impact a city’s population.
We plan to grow 200-300% in the next three years. This goal, adopted during a recent strategic planning process, will drive our first stage of growth. Over the next three years, we’ll measure the efficacy of our intervention. This programmatic success will drive our future rate of expansion, with a specific focus on those schools with the largest populations of struggling readers. It’s at this second stage of growth, in years 4-10, that we would expect to explore partnerships with DC Public Schools, develop additional programs, and consider expansion beyond DC’s borders.
January was about looking ahead to 2013 and being prepared for the many changes to come. It was also about understanding and embracing new generations, thinking about risk differently, re-evaluating growth, and analyzing the unique and critical role of foundations.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in January in social innovation. But please add to the list in the comments. And if you want to see more, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The predictions about what 2013 will mean for social innovation continue this month. As part of their whole Outlook 2013 series, the Chronicle of Philanthropy provides 5 Ways Nonprofit Work Will Change in 2013 and 5 Nonprofit Innovators to Watch. And the Philanthrocapitalism blog makes 20 predictions for 2013 chief among them is the rise of the woman philanthrocapitalist. Writing in Forbes, Antoinne Machal-Cajigas tells us What’s Next in the World of Social Innovation?
- January saw the second inauguration of President Obama, and Mathew Forti and Colin Murphy argue that his re-election campaign offers nonprofits some ideas about how to measure performance.
- Phil Buchanan, head of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, likes to stir things up, and I love him for it. He argues that nonprofit dependency on philanthropic dollars is NOT a bad thing. And because there is no rest for the weary, later in the month he argues against “the stampede to embrace the idea that for-profits — or for-profit models — can more easily combat our toughest social problems.”
- Writing on the HBR blog, Kimberly Dasher Tripp reminds us that scaling social impact is not about growing organizations, it’s about growing solutions.
- And speaking of impact, if you haven’t started figuring out what results your nonprofit is achieving, you may want to start since it looks like your youngest donors are demanding it.
- Bradford K. Smith, president of the Foundation Center, wrote a moving post about the critical role foundations play in our society, “Free from the bottom-line pressure of markets, the partisanship of electoral politics, and the demands of fundraising — [foundations] can use their independence to do remarkable things, whether it’s taking on issues that no one wants to touch, sticking with an issue for decades if required, or keeping the rest of us from forgetting the millions of people who, through no fault of their own, continue to be harmed and/or excluded by war, economic injustice, disease, and discrimination.”
- Beth Kanter writes a great post about overcoming the risk-aversion of the nonprofit sector by taking “little bets.”
- As you plan your conference schedule for the year ahead, check out the William James Foundation’s comprehensive list of social entrepreneurship conferences.
- Social change can be exhausting, demoralizing work. Here’s how a New York City teacher, with arguably one of the hardest jobs in education, stays committed to social change.
- The millennial generation is no longer willing to separate work and life, so says Ryan Steinbach on the UnSectored blog. In fact, “millennials see their careers as not a part of their lives, but rather what they do with their lives – and life is so much more than making ends meet. It’s social, emotional, physical, and spiritual. It’s about pursuing your passions, building relationships, and giving back.”
Photo Credit: thatdisneylover
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