Note: Third in my list of guest bloggers this summer is David Henderson. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. Here is his guest post:
I was recently turned down for a position at a startup-up big-data company focused on the philanthropic sector because I’m “too pessimistic”. This company initially sought me out since they don’t have any social sector expertise on staff, a likely requisite to make successful nonprofit software. Our courtship turned sour when I expressed my view that we have a lot more social sector initiatives than evidence that those interventions actually work.
My skepticism that social sector initiatives by and large work was wrongly misconstrued as pessimism that social progress is possible. Skepticism is a critical driver of intellectual curiosity. I spent a pretty penny on two degrees that essentially taught me how to critically assess the divide between rhetoric and results. Indeed, the null hypothesis in a statistical model assumes the intended effect is not present. I guess statisticians are just a bunch of pessimists.
Fundamentally, I believe the company I interviewed with was mirroring the widespread lack of intellectual curiosity that plagues the social sector and impedes real progress. Too many nonprofits are terrified of having their claims of social impact investigated, lest their effects are discovered to be more modest than claimed. And I don’t blame them. The funding community’s emphasis on investing in “what works” has resulted in a proliferation of noise as every nonprofit steadfastly argues their interventions cure everything. It’s no wonder evaluators are seen as Angels of Death.
I generally don’t favor taking cues from the for-profit world, but venture capital and angel investors’ practice of investing in people and teams over ideas is far more conducive to intellectual honesty in product (and social intervention) development. The basic premise of this investment strategy is that initial product ideas are generally wrong, but smart people will investigate, iterate, and innovate.
Compare that philosophy to the social sector, where the expectation is that nonprofits already have the answers, they just need money to scale them up. This assumption is largely incorrect, but by making funding contingent on the perception of effectiveness, the nonprofit sector is incentivized to not question the efficacy of its own work. In this model, continued funding depends on a lack of intellectual curiosity at best, and intellectual dishonesty at worst.
A better alternative is for nonprofits to embrace intellectual curiosity, and to be the first to question their own results. Under this model, nonprofits would invest in their capacity to intelligently probe the effectiveness of their own interventions, by staffing those with the capacity to sift through outcomes data and investing in the growing list of tools that are democratizing evaluation. Of course, this would require a shift in the funding community away from “investing in what works” to more humbly “investigating what works”.
A shift toward intellectual curiosity would create more space for the sector to solicit beneficiary feedback in the design of social interventions, as organizations would no longer be incentivized to defensively “prove” existing approaches work, and instead would be rewarded for proactively evolving practices to achieve better results. It is this very intellectual curiosity that led organizations like GiveDirectly and the Family Independence Initiative to invest in the poor directly, a departure from long-standing anti-poverty practices that the evidence suggests might actually work. It’s a shame that organizations imbued with a mission of experimentation deviate so far from the norm.
I don’t consider it pessimistic to question whether the sector is achieving its intended social impact. To the contrary, it’s rather cynical to set aside what should be the critical question for any nonprofit organization in the name of self-preservation. In order to achieve social progress, the sector needs to expel anti-intellectual policies and actors in favor of a healthy skepticism that questions everything, and is willing to try anything.
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In addition to the Social Impact Exchange conference I mentioned earlier, I will be traveling a lot this summer connecting with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders. I’ll be blogging about what I learn in my travels and conversations. And, I’m really excited to announce, that I have an amazing group of guest bloggers who will be posting throughout the summer as well.
These guest bloggers are people who really make me think and will offer some really interesting perspectives. I’ve invited them each to take over one Social Velocity blog post sometime during the summer.
Below is the guest blogger lineup with some background on each of them. Their posts will begin in late June. And I will continue to post throughout the summer as well.
Social Velocity Summer Guest Bloggers
Robert is the founder of DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen, as well as the nonprofit sector advocacy group, CForward. Robert was included in the Non Profit Times list of the “50 Most Powerful and Influential” nonprofit leaders from 2006-2009, and speaks throughout the country and internationally on the subjects of hunger, sustainability, nonprofit political engagement and social enterprise. He is a tireless advocate for the nonprofit sector, encouraging nonprofits to take their rightful seat at the table. He is always pushing us to think bigger and smarter about social change. You can read my past interview with him here and my post about CForward here.
David is the founder of Idealistics, a former social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He has worked in the social sector for the last decade providing direct services to low-income and unhoused adults and families, operating a non-profit organization, and consulting with various social sector organizations and foundations. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which I highly recommend. He will make your head hurt, but in a really good way. You can read my interview with him here and watch the Google Hangout he and I did about Using Real Performance Data to Raise Money.
Jessamyn is Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, a family foundation based in Palo Alto, California. The Peery Foundation invests in and serves social entrepreneurs and leading organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world. Jessamyn helps shape the foundation’s strategy, develops programs, strengthens the foundation’s portfolio, and supports existing grantees. Her experience as part of the founding Ashoka U team has given her the perspective and skill-set to help the foundation develop new methods to support and build the field of social entrepreneurship. You can read my interview with her here.
Adin is Senior Director of Community Impact and Innovations at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. In this role, he develops new strategies and programs to bring about change and impact within JCF’s mission. Adin focuses on defining metrics to document impact, maximizing measurable impact and increasing the visibility of the organization. Prior to JCF, Adin was a nonprofit consultant and had his own blog, Working in White Space, which was phenomenal. You can read my past interview with him here.
Laura is a network developer at the Council on Foundations, where she tracks philanthropic trends and builds relationships with leaders advancing the common good across sectors. She also leads an impact investing initiative and regularly interacts with those interested in the changing landscape of social good. Previously as manager of public-philanthropic partnerships, she built the capacities of federal agencies interested in partnering with foundations. Before joining the Council, she worked at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and at the Central New York Community Foundation. Laura has been named a Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum. She is also a StartingBloc Fellow and writes for UnSectored, serving on advisory boards for both organizations. You can read my interview with her here.
So there you have it. A summer guest blogging lineup that I am thrilled about. I can’t wait to read what they all have to say. Stay tuned!
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A big topic of conversation lately has been whether donors really care about impact, or whether they simply just give based on less scientific things like their emotions, or their friends recommendations. Which is why I’m excited to announce that I’ll be participating in a Google Hangout April 30th about using data to attract donors.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Ogden claims that donors have never really been interested in impact. And Ken Berger from Charity Navigator and William Schambra of the Hudson Institute debate (here and here) whether moving the nonprofit sector toward performance management helps or hurts social change efforts.
To add to this conversation, David Henderson and I are hosting a Google Hangout, “How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money,” on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern. David is a super smart guy who runs Idealistics, a consultancy that helps nonprofits learn from their outcomes data, increase impact, and demonstrate results to funders and stakeholders. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to implement higher impact poverty interventions. He has been quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and has written for Change.org and the Huffington Post. You can read my interview with him from a year and a half ago here.
David and I thought it would be interesting to host a conversation with nonprofit leaders about how nonprofits can use real performance data to raise more money. We’ll kick off the hour-long conversation with a couple of points and a case study or two of nonprofits that are using data to raise more money, but then we’ll open it up to you for questions. You can send us your questions ahead of time (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) or simply post them to the Google Hangout here as you watch.
I hope you’ll join us!
How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money
A Google Hangout with David Henderson and Nell Edgington
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013
Can nonprofits that use real performance data to raise more money? Are donor increasingly interested in impact data? How can nonprofits communicate their program data to donors? And how should nonprofits respond to questionable performance claims by other organizations? Join David Henderson from Idealistics and Nell Edgington from Social Velocity in a Google Hangout on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern to discuss these and many more questions about how nonprofits can use real data to raise more money. We’d love to have you participate in the discussion, so send your questions ahead of time to Nell or David, or leave a comment at the Google Hangout here.
Photo Credit: 401(K) 2013
There is an increasing drumbeat in the world of social change that nonprofits must start measuring their work. Thought leaders like Mario Morino with Leap of Reason, Bill Shore’s recent blog post “What Does Success Look Like?” and David Henderson’s (recently interviewed on the Social Velocity blog here) ongoing Full Contact Philanthropy blog, to name a few, are adding to the chorus.
The argument among thought leaders, funders, raters and others in the social change sector is increasingly that nonprofits MUST:
- Figure out what they exist to do (a theory of change)
- Create a disciplined operational model for creating that change
- Measure whether the change is actually happening
- Articulate that change in order to garner more support
But all of this is fairly new to the nonprofit sector and not yet widely practiced (by a long shot). In fact, some of these ideas are still quite controversial. Let’s take #2 for example, “Creating a disciplined operational model.” David Henderson analyzes this well in his post last week. Although David gets a little bogged down in jargon, his idea is a really great, but probably touchy, one.
He argues that nonprofits must become more discerning and disciplined about who they provide service to. Because nonprofits have limited resources, they cannot serve everyone. Therefore instead of serving people on a first come first served basis (which is the norm), they should instead serve those who they can best help. In other words, they should determine and then serve those populations of people who will benefit the most from their intervention:
In the case of the youth workforce development program, while all low-income youth would qualify for services, we might have a preference for placing people into the program who are likely to complete the internship. In this case, one could use historical data to fit a predictive model that provides some insight into what characteristics made an individual more or less likely to have completed the program in the past. Under this framework, social welfare maximization would involve not only placing people into the program, but maximizing the number of people in the program who complete the internship.
The idea is that instead of filling up the program with any youth who have a need, the nonprofit would create more social change by thoughtfully selecting types of children on whom they could have the most impact.
To the nonprofit world, which is very much focused on trying to help as many people as possible, this is a potentially radical idea. But if smartly employed, nonprofits could actually provide more social change through this disciplined method. And in an increasingly resource-constrained environment, it makes sense for nonprofits to want to get the highest return on their program resources.
In order to take this approach, however, nonprofits must have a theory of change. You cannot create social change if you don’t:
- Know what you want that change to be, and
- Measure whether that change is happening
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it is getting harder and harder for nonprofits to attract support. The harsh reality is that those nonprofits that develop a smart theory of change, measure whether that change is happening, and then articulate the change to supporters will increasingly be the ones that survive. Not to mention that they will be the ones that actually create social change.
Photo Credit: Colin Smith
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with David Henderson. David is the founder of Idealistics Inc., a social sector consulting firm that helps organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He has worked in the social sector for the last decade providing direct services to low-income and unhoused adults and families, operating a non-profit organization, and consulting with various social sector organizations. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: On your blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, you write a lot about making program evaluation accessible to all nonprofits, even small and under-resourced ones, which is something that a lot of those pushing for evaluation neglect to address. Evaluation can be expensive, time-consuming and poorly executed. What is the essence of good evaluation, and, at a minimum, what should all nonprofits be doing to evaluate their work?
David: Whatever the price tag, a good evaluation helps you make better decisions, a bad evaluation does not. If an organization is not open to changing its course of action regardless of what the data suggest, then evaluation has no meaning. Therefore, the most important step in any evaluation is knowing what you want to evaluate and why.
While some evaluations are expensive, they don’t all have to be. Evaluation does not mean just one thing. There is no one right way to do evaluation. Instead, there are a number of ways organizations can use outcomes metrics to inform their work, ranging from randomized control trials (most accurate and most expensive) to simply monitoring whether a few key indicators are getting better or worse.
More important than the certitude of any one evaluation is the regularity with which an organization uses metrics in decision making. It’s not terribly costly to start every staff meeting with an update on how the people you are helping are doing. But this discipline helps create cultural commitment to using outcomes data in decision making, which is really at the core of any good evaluation strategy.
Nell: Is everything in the social change arena measurable? Are their some public good efforts that are so complex or have so many variables that we cannot measure them, yet they still need to happen?
David: When we think about measurement, we tend to imagine a numeric, linear scale with start and end points. Not everything is quantifiable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not measurable.
Organizations collect information all the time. Some of that data is quantifiable and gets stored in spreadsheets and databases. But we also get a lot of important information through visual observations and conversations.
All of this information, quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective, helps inform decision making. Taking the information we have and establishing evaluative frameworks that help us make systematic program decisions is the real challenge.
Nell: How does government fit into the effort for social change? Can and is government changing quickly enough to keep up and to have a relevant place?
David: Ideally, the non-profit sector would innovate and test social interventions, and governments would take the best innovations to scale. But successful social innovation requires cultural commitment to both evaluation and failure. And in the current funding environment, failure is not an option. That’s a big problem.
With so much pressure on organizations to show evidence of impact, instead of investing in innovating new social solutions, non-profits are hiring marketing consultants shrouded as evaluation experts to help them tell their stories.
If the government is to invest in and scale what works, as the federal Social Innovation Fund purports to do, organizations have to be free to report what does and what does not work. So long as our focus is on story telling instead of truth telling, it’ll be difficult for non-profits to have the latitude to experiment and evaluate freely, leaving the government precious little worth scaling.
Nell: Your particular interest is social change efforts to alleviate poverty. But since poverty is the result of some very serious failures in America’s infrastructure (inadequate education system, broken health care system, etc) is it possible to fix the results of those inadequacies without addressing those much larger structural deficiencies? Or can social entrepreneurs do both?
David: Poverty eradication has to be the goal, but alleviation is pretty darn important to the 43.6 million Americans and billions more worldwide living in poverty today. Social entrepreneurs as well as a myriad of government efforts address both structural causes and the many harms resulting from poverty.
Regardless of a particular intervention’s focus, every effort is more likely to succeed when informed by regular outcomes assessments. Since my firm’s focus is helping organizations use client metrics to make higher impact program decisions, we work with all types of organizations across the anti-poverty spectrum.
Nell: How does your company Idealistics fit into the solution to poverty?
David: Our practice is about helping organizations make smart, high impact decisions that increase social outcomes. Everything we do is underscored by a vision of a social sector that uses evidence in the crafting, implementation, and iterative evaluation of its interventions.
Probably the most important thing we do toward that end is helping organizations establish decision frameworks. A decision framework converts an agency’s theory of change into a tool, or a mathematical model as we think about it, that organizations can test, update, and use in the design and execution of their interventions.
With a solid decision framework in place, we provide analytically oriented consulting and technology systems that help organizations establish data collection pipelines to make sense of their information.
While a lot of our customers hire us so they can better prove to their funders that they’re making a difference, that isn’t our objective. But the fact is our customers do very well with their funders.
Our clients are able to uniquely demonstrate an analytical approach to their work, and have the evidence they need to back their claims of progress, which makes them very competitive in the evidence-deficient social sector landscape. However, for me and my team, the real gratification is not that our customers impress their funders, but that they are better positioned to change the lives of the people they serve.
A new year is always a time to re-evaluate things, to forge a new approach, to finally change something that just isn’t working anymore. In the nonprofit world, how nonprofits and their major donors interact could stand a new approach. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be open and honest with those who fund your work, as Ann Goggins Gregory has pointed out. And sometimes nonprofits feel beholden to donors who are taking the organization in the wrong direction, in this case blogger David Henderson encourages nonprofits to “fire bad donors.”
This disconnect between nonprofits working to solve problems and the donors who fund them can sometimes seem a vicious, unending cycle.
But with a new year comes a new opportunity to alter this pattern. Here’s what nonprofit leaders can do to create the donors they really need:
- Inspire your donors. Make your ask for money from a place of impact, not need. Talk about your bold, ambitious strategies for change. Describe an opportunity so compelling, so invigorating, so inspiring that donors can’t help but reach for their pocketbook and follow where you lead. Part of your job as a nonprofit leader is to paint such a clear, desirable picture of a future goal that it becomes a magnet for the resources needed to get there.
- Ask for more. It’s not a donor’s job to automatically give you as much as they possibly can. Rather, it’s your job to convince them to give until it hurts. When a donor gives you less than you asked for, or less than it’s really going to cost, push back. Don’t just thank them and walk away. If they truly can’t or won’t give more, ask them to help you find a funding partner. If you want donors who share the burden of your work, treat them as such. Encourage them to give more, bigger, better. Not just with their pocketbook, but with their rolodex too. Be honest with them about how they could really make a difference and at what level.
- Command respect as an expert. Donors sometimes carry a hubris that they know best how to spend the dollars they invest in an organization. Work to forge a partnership with your donors that recognizes you and your organization as the solution provider. A donor’s ideas and insights as an investor should be welcome, but at the end of the day you know what is best for your organization, its mission and the impact you are working to achieve. Make sure your donors know that.
- Stop apologizing for administrative costs. Educate your donors about how significant social change can’t be bought on a shoe string. If your donors are committed to the work your organization is doing, then they must invest in the personnel, space, technology, fundraising and other needs that are integral to that work. Don’t let funders only fund “direct program expenses,” as if such a thing even existed. Don’t let your donors make meaningless distinctions that end up crippling your organization financially.
- Educate donors about capacity capital. To take the last point even further, capacity capital (or money for personnel, technology, systems, space) is a new concept for philanthropists who tend to like to fund programs alone. But capacity capital could actually have a much higher social return on investment for donors because it strengthens an organization so that it can create more impact in perpetuity. But donors won’t understand that on their own. You need to make that case. Figure out what it will actually cost to hire the staff, secure the space, buy the technology you need. Then educate your donors about how funding those things could transform your organization and your impact.
It’s exhausting when you lack the donors you really need. But you can’t just wait around hoping they’ll see the light. It’s up to you to transform a mediocre or troublesome donor into a competent and willing partner in change.
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