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Strategy

Guest Post: An Emergent Approach to Philanthropic Strategy

Kelly Born 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:

  1. Are there solutions and approaches that are worth pursuing?
  2. Is there ample grantee capacity to pursue these ideas (or can we help build it)?
  3. 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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?

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: June 2015

social innovationJune was an amazing month in the world of social change.

Most notably, the long fight for marriage equality was won with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. It is moments like these where the long, arduous road towards social change makes sense. But that wasn’t all that was going on in the busy month of June. From “new” tech philanthropy, to the orthodoxies of philanthropy, to the oversight of philanthropy, it was all up for debate. Add to that some fascinating new ideas for museums, new data on how Millennials get their news, and a fabulous new blog about the history of philanthropy. It was a whirlwind.

Below are my picks on the 10 best reads in the world of social change in June. But let me know what I missed. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

And if you want to see past 10 Great Reads lists go here.

  1. The biggest news by far in June was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges making gay marriage legal. In the ruling opinion Justice Kennedy writes: “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death…Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” While this is a huge win for equality, I think the two really interesting parts of the story are 1) how relatively quickly gay marriage went from banned to law and 2) the various actors that made that social change happen. Some argue that Andrew Sullivan’s 1989 landmark essay in New Republic started the intellectual case for gay marriage. This New York Times interactive map shows how gay marriage went from banned to legalized state by state over time. And Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, describes the decades long struggle of nonprofit reformers and their donors, including the Haas Fund in San Francisco, to make marriage equality happen.
  2.  

  3. A new blog, the HistPhil blog, launched in June to much acclaim. There is an enormous need for a historical perspective as we work to make nonprofits and the philanthropy that funds them more effective. HistPhil has already begun to provide that in spades with excellent posts on the Supreme Court ruling, among many other topics you will see below.
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  5. Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and founding president of Facebook, launched a new foundation and wrote a controversial piece in the Wall Street Journal about his “new” vision for philanthropy.  Some found his ideas full of hubris, while others found him to be “an articulate evangelist for tech philanthropy.
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  7. And if that wasn’t enough philanthropic controversy for you, there were two other debates waging in June. First was the response to David Callahan’s New York Times piece, “Who Will Watch the Charities?” where he argued that we need greater oversight on nonprofits and their funders. Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy quickly shot back that while Callahan raised some important questions, he ignored the complexity of the sector and reform efforts already under way. And then the two got into an interesting back and forth. Finally, Callahan wrote a follow up piece for Inside Philanthropy. Good stuff!
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  9. Along the same lines, the other point of debate in June centered around a Stanford Social Innovation Review article where Gabriel Kasper & Jess Ausinheiler attempted to challenge the underlying assumptions in philanthropy.  But now that we have a new expert on the history of philanthropy on the block, Benjamin Soskis from the HistPhil blog gave us a more accurate historical perspective about just what is and isn’t philanthropic orthodoxy.
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  11. Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, wrote a great long form piece in the Democracy Journal arguing that museums could become much more relevant and financially sustainable if, among other things, they began selling their stored artwork. Crazy controversial, but fascinating, ideas.
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  13. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Scharpnick cofounder of Elefint Designs, argued that recent ProPublica investigations of the American Red Cross uncovered our double standard for nonprofits. As he writes: “We are asking organizations to meet competing demands—many of which are at odds with how they are funded. We want nonprofits and NGOs to solve problems as effectively as private-sector organizations, and we want them to do it without any of the advantages and with far more constraints.”
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  15. The Ford Foundation announced a sweeping overhaul in their grantmaking strategy. They will now focus solely on financial, gender, racial and other inequalities, and double their unrestricted giving. Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, described how he is closely watching this historic move. And Brad Smith, president of the Foundation Center, offered a view of how philanthropy has approached inequality.
     

  16. The Hewlett Foundation’s Kelly Born provided some interesting thoughts about what a new Pew Research Center report about how Millennials get their news means for civic engagement.
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  18. And finally, on an inspirational note, Steven Pressfield articulated how “artists,” or really anyone hoping to bring something new into the world (a painting, a novel, a solution to a social challenge), should think:  “As artists, [we believe]…that the universe has a gift that it is holding specifically for us (and specifically for us to pass on to others) and that, if we can learn to make ourselves available to it, it will deliver this gift into our hands.” Yes.

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Social Velocity Summer 2015 Guest Bloggers

As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.

And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).

I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.

Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!

 

antony bugg-levineAntony Bugg-Levine
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.

 

Kelly_Born

Kelly Born
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.

 

phil buchananPhil Buchanan
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does.  He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.

 

kathy reichKathy Reich
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.

 

david hendersonDavid Henderson
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is 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 is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.

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Nonprofit Leaders, Take a Breath

nonprofit leaderEarlier this month, after much effort, I finally convinced a worn out nonprofit leader to take some time off to rejuvenate. But it was a battle.

Because they are often incredibly driven by ambitious social change visions, tremendous empathy for the plight of their clients, and an overly developed gratitude to their board and donors, nonprofit leaders push themselves extremely hard.

In fact, nonprofit leaders are really quite excellent at self-denial. I see this all the time in my coaching practice.

But nonprofit leaders you must give yourselves permission to breathe. And I don’t mean an afternoon off, or a weekend without checking email.

I mean a real break. A break where you start to find yourself again.

Not yourself as a nonprofit leader, but yourself as a human being with interests, connections, and passions outside of your organization. Someone who explores the world around you. Someone who realizes that you are on this earth for a very short time and while your role in social change is absolutely necessary, it is not your only contribution, nor is it the only place you can (or should) find meaning.

Because let’s be honest, the only way a pace like yours ends is in complete social change burnout. By existing only on the unending treadmill of work, work, work and ignoring your very human need to reconnect with your passions, your spirit, your family and friends you are setting yourself up for eventual breakdown. And make no mistake, without you as leader at the helm, your nonprofit’s work will grind to a halt.

So during these summer months when things are perhaps a bit slower, give yourself permission to take an extended period of time away.

And I mean really away.

Turn off your phone and your email. Step back from social media (believe me it will still be there when you get back).

Without the constant deluge of information and demands on your time assailing you, you are free to hike the mountains, get a massage, take in an art exhibit, watch your children or your grandchildren play (and join them!), explore your hobbies, read an amazing book. It really doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do something different and meaningful. Embrace the parts of yourself outside of your social change job, those things that make you fully human.

You may even consider taking it further, as philanthropic thought leader Lucy Bernholz did recently with a “digital sabbatical” where she went offline (no email or social media) for six weeks. She found the experience incredibly rejuvenating: “Without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.”

As the daily glut of information continues to increase, it becomes more important than ever to take a breather, to embrace the quiet. There is tremendous value in reconnecting with what makes us human, not machine.

And let me assure you that I am giving myself this same advice. I know how hard it is to step away from the email and social media beasts. I’m as concerned as you are with letting people down or not making enough progress.

But I am slowly coming to realize that sometimes progress is found in the quiet. And sometimes it is enough — more than enough — to just be. To sit and watch the world in all its beauty float by and have absolutely no effect on it other than to appreciate it.

If you need help finding the space to do this, check out the Coaching I offer nonprofit leaders.

Photo Credit: pixabay

 

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7 Things Funders Don’t Get About Fundraising

nonprofit fundraisingIn the nonprofit world there is often a disconnect between funders of nonprofits and their understanding of the fundraising activity necessary to secure their gifts. Funders (and board members) rarely understand how critical fundraising is, how it works, and what’s required to do it well.

But in the hope that greater understanding leads to better actions, I’d like to offer 7 of the most important things funders (and really the sector as a whole) should understand about fundraising:

  1. Nonprofits Must Fundraise or Perish 
    It seems so obvious, but so many in the nonprofit sector act as if fundraising can be ignored or shuffled to the side. Board members hate to do it, and foundations refuse to fund it. But let’s be clear. Without a strategic, sophisticated mechanism for bringing regular revenue in the door there is no organization and certainly no social change. Fundraising must happen, and it must happen effectively in order for a nonprofit to survive and thrive. So funders (and board members) do not have the luxury of saying they don’t want to talk about, think about, or fund fundraising efforts.

  2. There is a Sector-wide Lack of Fundraising Knowledge
    Because fundraising has for so long been ignored or sidelined, most nonprofit leaders and their board members don’t have sufficient fundraising experience or training. And neither do funders. There hasn’t been enough research into the fundraising discipline broadly and little investment in educating nonprofit leaders about how to do it well. The end result is that few people know how to crack the fundraising nut.

  3. Every Nonprofit Has Two Customers
    Part of the solution to cracking that nut is understanding that unlike for-profit entities, nonprofits have two (not just one) set of customers. Nonprofits provide products and/or services to the first customer (“Clients”), but “sell” those services to the second customer (“Funders”). Therefore “sales” in the nonprofit world is much more complex than it is in the for-profit world. Yet for-profit businesses can spend much more money on their sales and marketing staff, training, systems and materials than a nonprofit is allowed to spend on fundraising.

  4. It Takes Money to Make Money
    So in order to do fundraising well nonprofits must invest in their fundraising function (planning, staff, training, systems, materials). Those nonprofits that develop a strategic financial model that is fully integrated with their mission and core competencies will be more sustainable and more effective at creating social change. So nonprofit leaders must start asking for the money necessary to build effective financial models.

  5. Sustainability is a Funder’s Problem Too
    And funders must start providing it. Funders often want a nonprofit to demonstrate financial sustainability, but those same funders won’t invest in the capacity necessary to create that sustainability. Instead of just pointing out the sustainability problem, funders must become part of the solution. Funders should step up to the plate to help nonprofits create a capacity building plan and then provide capacity capital (along with other fellow funders) to build a more sustainable organization that will survive once a funder is gone.

  6. Earned Income is Not a Solution
    But a more sustainable organization does not mean one based on earned income, or selling a product or service. Nonprofits will always be subsidized, at least in part, by private and/or public contributions. By definition, nonprofits exist to address a failing in the market economy (i.e. not enough food or jobs). Thus, those failings will never be overcome purely by market forces. So while earned income is something every nonprofit should explore, it is not right for every organization and will never become 100% of a nonprofit’s revenue model. So don’t confuse sustainability, which means a longterm financial model, with earned income.

  7. Nonprofit Leaders Fear Funders
    Let’s just be honest. A funder is providing much needed resources to a nonprofit and that automatically creates a power imbalance. Until we figure out a way around that inherent dynamic, funders must limit the hurdles they put in the way of nonprofit leaders and instead give them the financial runway to make their social change vision happen.

Let’s face it, without money there is no social change. But the knowledge, experience and infrastructure necessary to generate enough money is woefully short in the nonprofit sector. That could change if funders lead the way toward more investment in strategic, sustainable financial models.

Photo Credit: 401K Calculator

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Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management: Pillar 2

nonprofit managmentThis spring I have been trumpeting the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit released by the Leap Ambassador community in March. Today I continue the ongoing blog series describing each of the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative with Pillar #2: Disciplined, People-Focused Management.

You can read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership here, and you can read my interview with Lowell Weiss, one of the chief architects of the Performance Imperative here.

With this second Pillar, the Performance Imperative obviously makes a distinction between “leaders” in Pillar 1, and “managers” in Pillar 2. There is a note in the Performance Imperative that “leaders” and “managers” are typically two separate people in nonprofits with budgets over $1 million. So this distinction, and perhaps this Pillar, applies only to larger nonprofits.

But I think there is actually application to any nonprofit. In any nonprofit there are leadership tasks (creating the vision, being the cheerleader, marshaling resources) and there are management tasks (making sure the trains run on time, putting each resource to its highest and best use). In smaller organizations both sets of tasks fall to the same person, yet they both still need to be performed well. So I think it behooves any size nonprofit to analyze whether they are BOTH leading and managing well.

Effective managers put organization resources to their highest and best use. They recruit, train and retain the right talent, they use data to make good decisions, they manage to performance, and they are accountable.

You can read a larger description of Pillar 2 in the Performance Imperative, but here are some of the characteristics of a nonprofit that exhibits Disciplined, People-Focused Management:

  • Managers translate leaders’ drive for excellence into clear workplans and incentives to carry out the work effectively and efficiently.
  • Managers…recruit, develop, engage, and retain the talent necessary to deliver on the mission.
  • Managers provide opportunities for staff to see…how each person’s work contributes to the desired results.
  • Managers establish accountability systems that provide clarity at each level of the organization about the standards for success and yet provide room for staff to be creative about how they achieve these standards.
  • Managers acknowledge when staff members are not doing their work well…managers are not afraid to make tough personnel decisions so that the organization can live up to the promises it makes.

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) is an example of how strong management is necessary to create a culture of high-performance. CEO employs people entering parole in New York State in transitional jobs at government facilities while helping them access better paying, unsubsidized employment. CEO Chief Operating Officer, Brad Dudding described to me how CEO management created, over the past 10 years, a culture and system of high performance.

Here is his story:

In the early years, CEO focused program performance on meeting individual contract milestones, not a set of unified organizational outcomes. They were proficient in collecting data and reporting it to funders, but did not use data to track participant progress, to make course corrections, and to manage to short-term outcomes.

In 2004 the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation provided CEO with a multi-year capital investment to:

  • Create a theory of change as a blueprint for program intervention and outcomes measurement.
  • Develop a performance measurement system to track progress toward those outcomes.
  • Nurture a performance culture that uses data to understand program progress, build knowledge and correct performance gaps.

First, CEO management had to agree on a theory of change and the specific outcomes for which the organization would hold itself accountable. Next, management shared the theory of change with staff and demonstrated how each staff member contributed to its achievement through an all staff event, follow-up trainings and consistent messaging that the organization was entering an exciting period of change. CEO then adopted a new performance measurement system to reinforce the theory of change.

But reorienting the organization was not easy. Not everyone was ready to embrace a new culture of performance accountability and data tracking. CEO management was initially surprised by staff resistance and responded impatiently with compliance measures. Looking back, not enough time was invested in staff training and promoting the value proposition of new changes. At times it was an enormous effort to get front line staff to track and use data everyday to ensure participant goals were being met.

But the tipping point came when CEO promoted early adopters of the data system to management positions. These new managers were comfortable operating in a data-driven environment and holding others accountable to use data to track program participants’ progress. Once there was a group of strong managers in place, CEO’s performance culture started to take hold and program outcomes improved.

By 2010, CEO was managing to annual performance targets and short-term outcomes through staff’s real-time documentation and data analysis.

In 2012, the results of a three-year randomized control trial showed that CEO’s program resulted in a reduction in recidivism of 16-22%. But the evaluation also uncovered a need to improve CEO’s strategies for advancing long-term employment and for connecting individuals to the full-time labor market. In response, CEO created a job retention unit and developed innovative job retention strategies, including training programs and financial incentives for participants.

In 2013, CEO entered the New York State Social Impact Bond, the first state-sponsored transaction, through which CEO will serve 2,000 high-risk parolees in New York City and Rochester between 2014 and 2018. If CEO hits benchmarks and reduces the use of prison and jail beds by program participants, investors will be repaid their principal and will receive a return of up to 12.5% by the U.S. Department of Labor and New York state.

The tenets of a performance based culture — supportive leadership, disciplined managers, goal setting, data collection and analysis to track and improve outcomes — are now fully accepted by CEO staff and reinforced by management. CEO now has a highly developed system of tactical performance management, which allows the organization to know on a daily basis if it is delivering on its promise to its participants.

Photo Credit: Australian Paralympic Committee

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A Nonprofit Culture of Measurement: An Interview with Mary Winkler

Mary WinklerIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Mary Kopczynski Winkler, senior research associate with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. Mary is a nationally recognized expert in the field of performance measurement and management.   She is a founding member of the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, a private community of nonprofit thought leaders and practitioners committed to increasing the expectation and adoption of high performance in the social sector and who released the Performance Imperative earlier this year.

You can read past interviews in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: PerformWell is an effort among Urban Institute, Child Trends and Social Solutions to offer tools and strategies for human services nonprofits to measure their work. How successful has this effort been and what are your plans for continuing to grow the capacity of nonprofits to measure their work?

Mary: PerformWell is a free, interactive, web-based resource designed to help human services nonprofits gain knowledge about performance management, access tools and resources they need to better service clients and meet outcomes, and obtain strategies for effective, efficient service delivery. Launched in March 2012, the demand for PerformWell has exceeded our expectations with more than 400,000 visitors (from all 50 states and more than 200 countries); 25,000 individuals have registered for our webinars; and more than 140,000 assessment tools have been downloaded from our site. Webinar survey results are routinely high, but we are working to put additional systems in place to track how nonprofits are using various aspects of PerformWell and to what end.

In 2013, the PeformWell partners engaged in a business planning process with Root Cause. Market research confirmed our views about a large unmet need for performance measurement knowledge and high interest in the resources offered through PerformWell, but that additional products and services are also desired, such as webinar training series, regional user conferences, and customized engagements with nonprofits. Users wanted a more interactive web-experience.

Our short- to medium-term goals include substantial updates to the website to improve the user experience (we also plan to solicit user feedback during and after these changes are implemented); development of additional products and services better aligned with the feedback obtained from the market research undertaken by Root Cause; and exploration of partnerships and sponsorships with nonprofits, consultants and funders to generate additional revenue and resources to expand the content, reach and use of PerformWell to improve the adoption and application of performance measurement and management practice across the nonprofit sector.

Nell: Some believe that measurement is perhaps more straightforward for human services nonprofits — you can measure change to an individual’s behavior or life circumstances — but measurement is more difficult for arts organizations or advocacy groups. What are your thoughts on that?

Mary: Sometimes I think this argument serves as a convenient excuse for organizations to avoid putting even the most basic systems in place to track progress or otherwise hold themselves accountable to their constituents. In 2007, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Urban Institute and the Center for What Works, we published a series of simple frameworks, as part of our Outcome Indicators Project, to help nonprofits in 14 program areas engage in performance measurement. Two of these areas are advocacy and performing arts. The Urban Institute also provided research support to the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) to develop standardized surveys to help performing arts organizations across the country obtain more routine and better data from audience members, subscribers, and the community.

Establishing a causal link between advocacy or arts interventions and impact is, in my view, more challenging than for human service organizations. In the case of advocacy organizations, it can be very difficult to isolate the contributions of a particular campaign or even organization to a policy or legislative outcome.

It is, however, possible to devise strategies for capturing information on earlier stage outcomes, such as increased awareness.

I recently participated on a panel at the annual OPERA America conference – on “internal metrics for civic impact.” As much as measurement activities have evolved from the days of the PARC coalition, I observed that most of the metrics and data points were still very internally focused on measures of participation and attendance and fall well-short of anything approximating community or civic impact. I encouraged those present to consider stepping away from a focus on the impact of an individual opera company’s contribution to civic impact, and recommended instead more of a collective impact approach in collaboration with other arts, civic, and education organizations in a community.

In this case, I even hesitated to use the word “impact,” and suggested the group consider distinguishing between collective contribution toward a modest set of civic outcomes (e.g., performing arts promote understanding of other cultures or are a source of pride for those in the community) and the more traditional causal attribution usually reserved for the term “impact.”

Nell: Caroline Fiennes, among others, has argued that individual nonprofits should actually do less evaluation and rather rely on larger research studies to prove their theories of change. What do you make of that argument and the difference between evaluation and measurement? 

Mary: I agree with some of what Caroline puts forth here – particularly her observations about “withholding (unflattering research) and publication bias” – an issue that University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Donald Moynihan has termed “performance perversity.” I also agree both with her suggestion that evaluations be done by a third-party to reduce any tendencies toward subjective reporting or bias and her endorsement of a greater consideration of shared metrics.

I am troubled, however, by the fact that only 7% of UK social-purpose organizations are interested in improving services, and her somewhat cavalier suggestion that monitoring and evaluation “wastes time and money.” Although she is not alone in this second argument (see for example Bill Shambra’s “take-down” of Charity Navigator’s efforts to encourage greater use of performance metrics in “Charity Navigator 3.0: The Empirical Empire’s Death Star?”), such sweeping generalizations undermine the legitimate and courageous attempts of many nonprofits to use data for program improvement efforts.

I agree with Phil Buchanan in that there is a “moral imperative” to make an honest attempt to understand if resources are being used effectively and certainly to guard against the possibility that programs could be doing more harm than good as organizations like Latin American Youth Center and Harlem Children’s Zone have discovered and since corrected.

I see measurement as a necessary practice for every nonprofit. But measurement is different from evaluation. Nonprofits need to start by developing a measurement infrastructure that makes sense for their organization – one that supports their mission and commitment to serve and improve the lives of their clients or constituents – not one that is reactionary and responsive to funders. It is precisely this kind of infrastructure that can lay the groundwork for a more rigorous evaluation, at a time that is right and appropriate for the organization’s stage in development.

I see measurement and evaluation along a continuum of inquiry that should be designed to support the learning objectives of an organization. Measurement helps organizations to take the day-to-day or month-to-month pulse of various activities and program results – these snapshots in time or scorecards help managers and service providers understand trends and provide an opportunity to correct, modify or otherwise adapt operations.

Evaluation is, by definition, more rigorous, more expensive, and takes considerably more time to see results. Evaluation serves a very important role as organizations make decisions about whether to continue, grow, scale or otherwise expand services, but it needs to occur at the right time – and certainly not as an organization is just getting off the ground.

Nell: It is difficult for most nonprofits to find funding for measurement work. For example, in the most recent Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector survey, 69% of nonprofit respondents said their funders rarely or never cover the costs of measurement. How do we change that, or can we?

Mary: Although I am sympathetic to this argument and argue frequently that foundations have a unique and critical role to play in helping to build the capacity of nonprofits to better engage in measurement and evaluation, I think we need to change the conversation to one that focuses on the shared responsibility between nonprofits and funders for making the necessary investments in measurement and evaluation.

If nonprofits are truly ready to embrace a culture of measurement and high performance, then they need to reorganize operations in ways that embed measurement practice at every level of the organization, and change expectations from front-line workers all the way to the board of directors.

This means things like: defining expectations about data collection in job descriptions; setting aside a small percentage of funding for evaluation as a line-item in every grant request; and using data in meaningful ways in everyday discourse. Likewise, funders need to work more collaboratively with grantees to understand the data needs and capacity of nonprofits, consider funding longer-term grants that build in support for measurement and evaluation, and stop asking for data or reports that aren’t part of the conversation about continuous improvement and learning. Funders, too, can support field-building efforts to develop additional tools and resources in support of the measurement work nonprofits seek to accomplish.

There are a number of exemplary efforts already underway including Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Propel Next and the World Bank Group’s support of Measure4Change and the East of the River Initiative. Each of these efforts feature: targeted grants to build measurement and evaluation capacity of participating nonprofits; access to technical assistance resources; and a community of practice to help grantees learn from each other, share successes or failures, and reduce what is all too often a sense of isolation among measurement and evaluation practitioners.

Photo Credit: Urban Institute

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: May 2015

social change readingMay was another busy month in the world of social change. For a start there was: a behavioral economics approach to social change, continued focus on civic tech, a tool for calculating a nonprofit’s true costs, new definitions of membership in the digital age, the evolving public library, digital sabbaticals, and much more.

Below are my 10 favorite reads in the world of social change in May, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook.

You can also read 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Perhaps some solutions to social problems lie in behavioral economics. Writing in The New York Times, economists Erez Yoeli and Syon Bhanot and psychologists Gordon Kraft-Todd and David Rand argue that the opinion of others, in this case regarding the preservation of natural resources, is a strong social change motivator.

  2. Civic tech, (the use of new technology to better engage citizens in democracy) has become quite the buzzword lately. But how do we know which civic tech solutions are actually creating change? Anne Whatley from Network Impact offers some tools for assessment in that arena.

  3. And another nonprofit tool comes from Kate Barr of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. She provides a great tool to help nonprofits calculate and then articulate to funders the full costs of their work.

  4. Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation writes a thoughtful piece on what separates good strategic planning from bad, because as he puts it “The real benefit of planning is not the final document but rather the discipline the process imposes, the new information it generates, the working relationships it fosters, and the conversations, insights, and commitments it sparks.” Amen to that!

  5. In this age of social media and technological connectedness, how do we create more formal structures for belonging to institutions? Melody Kramer, formerly of National Public Radio, is a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow working on that very question, and she offers some beginning thoughts on the project, including, “Imagine if public radio stations functioned as Main Streets…or in the same way that local public libraries do? It would transform the way people could interact — and participate — in the local news process, and would enhance the stories stations put out on air.” Fascinating.

  6. Speaking of libraries, NPR writer Linton Weeks provides a history of the public library and how it continues to (and must) evolve in the digital age.

  7. Great philanthropic futurist Lucy Bernholz has been offline for a bit, and it turns out she took a digital sabbatical. She reports that “without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.” What a great (and necessary) idea!

  8. Writing on the UnSectored blog, Marie Mainil describes the importance of building and supporting social movements to create global social change. As she puts it “Collecting data on the dynamics of local, regional, national, and international social change campaigns is the next frontier of organizing for social change. With a visual multi-level collection of ladders of engagement from across the world, social change actors would be able to better plan and coordinate tactics and actions at scale, thereby increasing their chances of success.”

  9. In May the Center for Effective Philanthropy held their biennial conference. Ethan McCoy provides great roundups of day one and day two. I almost feel like I was there!

  10. Never one to put things lightly, William Schambra cautions against what he sees as the hubris of tech philanthropists and his fear that they desire to “fundamentally…reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology.”

Photo Credit: Erin Kelly

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