Perhaps it had something to do with the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but March was all about using technology in interesting ways to further social change. From crowdfunding, to a new giving graph, to credit card donations to the homeless, to engaging people in the arts and beyond, people are experimenting with technology for social change in really exciting ways.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in March. But let me know in the comments what I missed. 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.
- Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the hot new thing in the social change world. It remains to be seen if it is a game changer, but in the meantime take a look at some examples of how its being used here, here, and here. And while we’re talking about innovative use of technology to fundraise, Lucy Bernholz dissects some new efforts to donate to the homeless via a credit card.
- Writing on the ArtsFwd blog, Anna Prushinskaya describes how some innovative arts organizations have used social media to effectively engage audiences in new ways.
- I’m really excited about a new technology the Case Foundation is developing that will map your online search preferences to giving suggestions just like Google, Facebook and others currently use your search preferences to suggest products and services. (I’ll be interviewing the mastermind behind this, Will Grana, on the blog this summer).
- I love to see nonprofits using new media (like video and infographics) to tell their story. Beth Kanter offers some easy tips for creating infographics. And speaking of cool infographics, check out this one on why slacktivists are more active than you think.
- It seems “scale,” the social innovation buzzword of a few years back, is being redefined. Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, describes a new report that expands the idea of scale and offers ways grantmakers can support it. And Ben Mangan, CEO of nonprofit EARN, spurs nonprofits and funders to move past “stifling incrementalism” and start working towards real scale.
- Dan Pallotta ruffled some feathers, as is his way, with his TED Talk this month The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong, and there were several responses. But I thought the most thought-provoking was from a group of professors from Boston who suggest that Pallotta’s argument that nonprofit salaries are too low only reinforces the wealth inequality of the American economy.
- And on a related note, Dione Alexander, writing on the Mission and Money blog, explains increasing wealth inequality as a kind of bullying, noting “The social contract through which we assume shared responsibility for the community is broken.”
- And since we are on the topic, this video about wealth inequality in America blew my mind. If you want a quick and dirty view of where America’s money goes, take a look.
- As part of the ten year anniversary of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Matthew Forti looks back at the past ten years of measuring nonprofit outcomes, the good, bad and the ugly.
- Writing in the Duke Chronicle, Trinity senior Elena Botella argues that deciding when a public service should be privatized should be based on evidence, as she says “Humans respond to a profit motive, but we also respond to altruism, community values, prestige and pride in our work.”
Photo Credit: mendhak
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
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
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Phil Buchanan. Phil is president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and was the first chief executive of the organization. Under his leadership, the organization has grown into the leading provider of comparative performance data to large foundations and other grantmaking institutions. Phil also serves on the board of Great Nonprofits and is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: At the Center for Effective Philanthropy you work to make philanthropists more effective at creating social change, but a large part of philanthropy is driven by emotion and passion as opposed to results and data. How do you reconcile a push towards more reasoned philanthropy with the emotional aspect that will always be present?
Phil: I understand that some people feel this tension, but to me, it’s hard to understand because I think emotion and passion and results and data can – and should – cohabitate very happily. The passionate, emotional desire to make change is what inspires the commitment to get results. If you believe deeply in helping people in need, but do it in a way that doesn’t help, what kind of emotional satisfaction do you get from that?
Fay Twersky of the Hewlett Foundation articulated this very well in an essay in Alliance Magazine. She says impact should be pursued with “a warm heart and a hard head.” I like this way of thinking about it.
Nell: One of the the things you promote at CEP is a move from evaluating nonprofits based on overhead spending to evaluating them based on achievement of results. But sadly most funders haven’t yet embraced this distinction. What will it take for funders and the general public to recognize that overhead percentages are meaningless and destructive to the nonprofit sector?
Phil: I think the adoption of better nonprofit performance assessment practices is part of the answer. The more data nonprofits can point to that can show what they achieved with their total budgets, the less relevant how that budget was divided will feel to donors.
Look, I think people tend to gravitate toward that which is available, quantifiable, and comparative. Overhead percentages are all of those things, so they become the default performance measure even those they don’t tell you anything about performance. Caroline Fiennes of the U.K. has a great new book called It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way You Give It, and one of the best parts is that she really slays the argument for looking at administrative costs, while also providing guidance on how to approach performance measurement.
The rub is that the only way we’ll get better overall nonprofit performance assessment practices is if funders support that work. In our research, we have seen that, contrary to the stereotypes, nonprofits care about assessment and are working on it. But they want and need much more support – financial and non-financial – from their funders. I hope that funders embrace this and support better assessment practices in service of better outcomes.
I think Mario Morino has been a powerful voice on this topic and I recommend his book, Leap of Reason, to everyone I can. I hope people are listening to Mario because measuring effectiveness isn’t some academic issue. People who work at nonprofits deeply want to be effective. Foundations want to be effective. The people we help desperately need us to be effective. So we should – and we must – figure it out and get beyond empty measures. And many have. There are some fantastic exemplars when it comes to nonprofit performance assessment. But there are not enough.
Nell: In addition to leading CEP, you also serve on the board of GreatNonprofits, which allows individuals (clients, donors, volunteers) to review nonprofits. How does the idea of individual consumer reviews of nonprofits fit into the larger movement to evaluate nonprofits based on outcomes when the average person doesn’t yet understand or embrace the idea of nonprofit performance measurement?
Phil: In some ways I think it’s very easy for anyone to grasp. You’re trying to help someone; shouldn’t you ask whether they feel they have been helped? GreatNonprofits can provide that read on whether individuals served by a nonprofit feel they’ve been helped. I think GreatNonprofits, which Perla Ni founded and leads, is really important and I also think we need other kinds of efforts to collect and analyze beneficiary perception data. We need both the kind of open, web-based opportunity GreatNonprofits offers as well as rigorous, survey-based efforts such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s YouthTruth initiative, which helps schools, districts, and funders hear from middle school and high school students. We’re debating school reform in this country yet many of those with power and resources don’t understand the students’ experiences. We know that those experiences correlate to outcomes, so this kind of perceptual data could be a vitally important “leading indicator” of progress.
Nell: Philanthropy tends to be fairly risk averse and focused on program funding, as opposed to the organization-building capital investments (money to build organizations rather than buy services) the nonprofit sector so desperately needs. What do you think it will take to get more philanthropists to make riskier, longer-term, organization-building investments?
Phil: I think there needs to be a greater recognition that we count on organizations to get the work done. Sounds obvious, I know, but I think funders sometimes forget.
It is stunning, and sobering, that despite the valiant advocacy of Paul Brest, Paul Shoemaker, GEO, NCRP, and others, there has been no increase in the provision of general operating support over recent years. But we also need to be careful not to pretend operating support alone is the answer. Our research demonstrates that what really matters to grantees is operating support that is multi-year and a decent chunk of change – six figures or up in annual support, ideally. So the problem isn’t just one of grant type, it’s also one of grant size.
This comes back to assessment, too, in my view. If, as a funder, you know what you’re going after, and there is an organization that is focused on the same goal and can show that it’s delivering results, why would you not provide significant, long-term, unrestricted support? And, if you can’t find organizations delivering results toward your shared goal, why wouldn’t you fund in a way that would allow them to build that capacity?
Nell: You recently wrote a fairly scathing critique of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case because you thought his approach to advocating for the nonprofit sector was misguided. Yet the nonprofit sector is largely underfunded, undervalued, and dismissed in the broader regulatory and political environment. What do you think it will take to change that reality?
Phil: Pallotta’s book doesn’t advocate for the nonprofit sector that I know – or for one that I would ever hope to see. He wants the sector to become something entirely different, something a lot more like business, something that ultimately might not be discernible at all as a distinct sector. His take on the sector is both ahistorical (he demonstrates almost no understanding of the sector’s past contributions) and ideological (he has written that “the free market is a self-correcting system” that supports our “natural desire to help each other” and “only stops working when it is interfered with”). He is infatuated with free market analogies, believes financial incentives are the key to motivating people despite research demonstrating that they are not, insists that public trust in charities is lower than in other sectors when all credible research shows the opposite, and does not seem to understand that many nonprofits work to address the problems that exist as a result of market failures. His book is a disservice to the nonprofit sector.
So, then, what do we need to do to increase the appreciation of public and government officials for the nonprofit sector?
We need to start by standing up and asserting our value as a sector separate and distinct from business and government. We need to stop buying into the fiction that being effective means being “like a business,” whatever that even means. We need to stop praising the “blurring of the boundaries” and start articulating why we need organizations that pursue mission alone rather than profit for their shareholders. We need to explain why the sector is good for our society, good for business, good for government, good for citizens: we all need the nonprofit sector to be its best for us to be our best. And we need to re-learn our history – Olivier Zunz’s recent book on U.S. philanthropy would be a good place to start.
Yes, of course there is much work to do to improve the sector, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear it down. I wrote a series of blog posts for Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society a few years ago and argued that just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible to believe both that the nonprofit sector is and has been a defining strength of this country and that it must dramatically improve its effectiveness. It is possible to both celebrate the diversity of the sector and its various organizations and push for greater clarity of organizational goals, strategies, and performance indicators. It is possible both to applaud initiatives fostering “social innovation” and the government’s embrace of this push and also recognize what has worked in the past.
We need not tear down the sector to improve it. We need not disparage all that has come before in order to chart a better future.
With a national election, hurricane Sandy, and Giving Tuesday, November was a busy month. All three events encouraged reflection about social change. And at the same time we had some pretty interesting arguments for how two of the sectors supporting social change (philanthropy and government) needed to shift as well. All made for a fascinating month of reading.
Below are my top 10 picks for what was worth reading in November in social innovation. And as always, please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see an expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or ScoopIt.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Even though hurricane Sandy hit at the end of October, much of November was spent cleaning up and reacting to the powerful storm. Patrick Davis reflects on what our reaction in natural disasters says about human nature.
- And from Sandy we moved into the national election where, once it was over, there was much to learn. First Lucy Bernholz marvels at Nate Silver (the statistician that very accurately predicted the outcome of the election) and wonders what the corollary is in the philanthropic world. She asks “Who will be the first big philanthropist to put predictive analysis to the test in the social sector?” And apparently there is much to be learned from the Obama campaign’s email tactics during the campaign.
- November also saw the launch of “Giving Tuesday,” an online effort to kick off the philanthropic season, just as Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the beginning of the commercial Christmas season. While it seems like a great, innovative idea, Tim Ogden disagrees arguing that it won’t “materially affect giving in any positive way.”
- It looks like it’s time to get tough with foundations. The PhilanTopic blog argues, “No More Free Rides: Foundations Need to Increase General Operating Support Now.” Amen to that! And GlassPockets, the Foundation Center’s online effort to increase foundation accountability and transparency now has 50 foundations participating, representing $138 billion in assets and more than $6.5 billion in annual giving, or 15% of all U.S. foundation giving.
- And the government has work to do as well. Former Social Innovation Fund Director Paul Carttar writes a call to action about what government can do to more effectively encourage social innovation.
- The drum beat for nonprofits to measure outcomes continues. Writing on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, Mollie West and Andy Posner encourage nonprofits to go the way of business and government and start using The Math of Social Change.
- And there is a really interesting new development in the ongoing effort to compare and rate social change organizations. The Social Impact 100 Index was unveiled in November. Modeled after the S&P Index in the financial markets, this effort by the Social Impact Exchange analyzes and picks the best 100 nonprofit investments for donors. It will be very interesting to see how this effort evolves and whether it transforms the nonprofit rating space.
- Despite a tough economy, charitable giving rose slightly in 2011. But the real news is that online giving has grown to a $22 billion industry.
- And speaking of fundraising in the online world, social media has completely disrupted the old model for how a nonprofit engages a donor, so says Julie Dixon and Denise Keyes. And Kivi Leroux Miller agrees.
- On the Managing the Mission Checkbook blog, Kate Barr cautions that nonprofit sustainability isn’t just about revenue, it’s about 1) working to achieve your mission 2) integrating a successful business model and 3) adapting and changing. Agreed!
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