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Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Planning for Nonprofit Success: An Interview With David Grant

In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with David Grant.

David is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and past chair of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. He now consults nationally with nonprofits, foundations, and schools and is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.

He is also a member of the Leap Ambassadors, a 100+ community of nonprofit thought leaders, progressive funders, policy makers, and instigators who believe “performance matters.”

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

Nell: Your book, The Social Profit Handbook, is about assessment, but your central chapter is titled “Mission Time.” Is this akin to the time spent on research and development in for-profit companies?

David: Yes, it is. I would compare it to any time set aside for strategic thinking and reflection on what we are learning from experience. I invoke Steven Covey’s famous Urgent/Important matrix and equate mission time with “Quadrant II,” where we deal with important matters when they are not urgent.

Effective nonprofit leaders often think strategically. The case I make for mission time in my book is that this should be an ongoing collective exercise. I believe there should be more time set aside for staffs and boards, singly and together, to be much more specific about what success will look like for their organization, so they can plan backwards from that shared vision.

I think it’s the most important practice nonprofit organizations can adopt if they are serious about getting better at what they do – which is creating social profit. At its best, I think mission time also includes the voices and perspectives of the people being served by a nonprofit organization. Can you imagine a company conducting R&D without checking in with clients and customers?

Nell: “Planning backwards” is another phrase you use frequently in the book. Is that what you are saying should happen during mission time? And if this practice is as important as R&D is in the for-profit sector, why don’t we see more of it in the social sector?

David: Those are great questions. Let me start with “planning backwards.” I see this phrase as critical to the practice of formative assessment – the kind of assessment whose purpose is to improve performance, not audit it or judge it. I think too many of us view assessment as summative; we think it comes at the end and that somebody gives us a grade. The central argument of my book is that when an organization takes assessment into its own hands, embraces its formative purpose, makes time for it and gets good at planning backwards, they not only improve their workplace culture, they go much further towards fulfilling their mission. In short, they create more social profit.

But here’s where the challenges of assessing and measuring success come in. If you describe what matters most to you – things like increasing a young person’s sense of hope and confidence; improving relationships and building trust between former adversaries; inducing an aesthetic response through great art; inspiring a long-term commitment to equity or a healthy environmental – people say, “You can’t measure that.”

What they are really saying is, “there is no standard unit of measure that applies to that.” Ok, fair enough – that’s why we need to get good at qualitative assessment. We need to be able to respond with confidence, “If you can describe it, you can measure it.” That’s why I spend so much time in my book talking about qualitative assessment rubrics as effective tools for this process. The rubric invites us to describe as specifically as possible along a spectrum what we mean by success, in relation to our criteria for success. It is as if we were creating the test we want to give ourselves a year from now, and we can plan backwards from how we want to score on that test. You can see how that can’t happen without mission time.

Your other question about why we don’t see more mission time, more planning backwards, and more rubrics in the nonprofit sector is one I think about a lot. I don’t think there is a single answer. Part of it is mindset – we tend to focus on programs and direct mission-based actions in the world instead of on building strong organizations and internal practices. Part of it is resources – we are stretched so thin that it is hard to get out of a mode of urgency. Part of it is our habits – we are used to certain kinds of meetings that often don’t make enough room for group education, reflection, and decision-making. Part of it is funding patterns – donors prefer program support to general operating or infrastructure support.

Ironically, I believe mission time and planning backwards make their own cases. But we have to take the time first in order for the case to be made.

Nell: In your previous role as CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, you launched a capacity building initiative for your grantees. What results did you see from doing so and what do you think holds other foundations back from doing something similar?

David: It’s interesting you should ask that this week, because even though I’ve been gone from the Dodge Foundation for seven years, I just saw something I would attribute, at least in part, to those capacity building efforts. I was working with a national gathering of arts service organizations, and we were examining several of their strategic plans to see how they addressed the concept of sustainability. The first two defined it narrowly as financial stability. But then a New Jersey-based organization, a long-time Dodge grantee, defined it holistically, citing elements of governance, human resources, assessment systems, and ongoing capacity building as critical to sustainability, in addition to maintaining financial vitality. I don’t think it was a coincidence that this organization, alone among this national group, had just completed a successful, million dollar capital campaign.

I remember when I was still reading proposals that the groups that participated in our capacity building workshops were much clearer about what they were trying to do, more straightforward about the challenges they faced, and more cognizant of their own needs as a vehicle that carried the pursuit of their mission over time.

What holds foundations back from capacity building? Well, I imagine some might feel it is too indirect as a social investment; others might worry this kind of support carries with it a promise of ongoing funding. All I can say is that I think Dodge got more bang for our bucks in this part of our funding portfolio than in any other.

Nell: One of the projects you are working on is Artists Thrive, which is about developing assessment tools for the arts. What are the goals of this project and how could it be a model for other social issue areas?

David: The Artists Thrive project is the brainchild of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, CT and its grantees. It started with creating an assessment tool for those who work with artists – essentially the grantees in Tremaine’s program called “Marketplace Empowerment of Artists.” But it quickly expanded to consider a much larger system and asked: “What would it look like to have thriving artists in thriving communities?” and “Who would need to do what to achieve that vision?”

A group of six arts leaders have been running with these questions for over a year, with me in a support role. We have launched a series of rubrics, with the spectrum of success defined from bottom to top as “Artists Give Up,” “Artists Struggle,” “Artists Survive,” and “Artists Thrive.” The initial rubric, as I said, looked at the mental models and the actions of those who work with artists. The second looked at the range of attitudes and actions of artists themselves. The third will be for funders, describing how different philanthropic practices affect artists and their communities. Those are the front-line players, so to speak, but we plan to look at how others can contribute to the realization of the thriving artists/thriving communities vision as well – mayors, corporate leaders, planning commissions, educators, etc.

As far as models go, I think we already have some fantastic models of rubrics that deal with issues on a national scale, like the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems, which I describe in my book, or more recently, the Whole Measures for Urban Conservation (2017), which is described on The Nature Conservancy’s website..

Nell: Our country is currently divided along many lines, however in your work as a consultant you often lead groups made up of people that bridge these divides in order to create change in their communities. What are some examples of change you have seen recently in your work? And more broadly, what gives you hope in these challenging times?

David: I wish I were doing more of the kind of work you mention. In fact, I had this fantasy during the 2016 primary election cycle that one of the candidates would brandish my book on stage during a debate and say, “What this country needs is a good rubric!”

But I did see an exercise in cooperation recently that I found really heartening. It was in Delaware, where members of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) and the Delaware Grantmakers Association (DGA) created a working group to write a rubric titled, “Grantmaker and Nonprofit Relationship for Creating Community Impact.” The title identifies their shared purpose — why their relationship matters.

The DANA/DGA draft rubric evokes a spectrum of performance (the columns of the rubric) in four short words: “Transactional,” “Engaged,” “Partnership,” and “Transformative.” As far as criteria to be measured along that spectrum (the rows of the rubric), the task force went to the critical dimensions of the relationship: the Alignment of beliefs in the purpose of the relationship; the Mutuality of feeling about its importance; the levels of Trust and Transparency in their interactions; and the quality of their Communication. Given that structure, it is no surprise that the draft rubric is both honest about disappointments and aspirational in its description of the possible.

This is an example of what gives me hope whenever I see it – systems thinking. As David Peter Stroh writes, “In conventional thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must optimize the parts. In systems thinking, in order to optimize the whole, we must improve the relationships among the parts.” It strikes me that at the highest level of the DNA/DGA rubric, it will not be just a relationship that has been transformed; it will be the State of Delaware. All from carving out the mission time and learning how to use it!

Photo Credit: Social Profit Handbook

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