This week I attended the After the Leap conference in Washington D.C. and was blown away. As I mentioned in a post earlier this year, the conference was organized by Social Solutions and PerformWell partners Child Trends and Urban Institute and builds on the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011, and the companion book Working Hard & Working Well by David Hunter published this year.
This first-ever conference was an attempt to bring the nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders who are on the cutting edge of the movement to create a higher-performing social sector together to, as Mario put it “grow a critical mass who can mobilize for greater change.”
What’s Government’s Role in Nonprofit Performance?
Day 1 focused on government’s role in driving social sector performance management. A fascinating panel of government agency leaders, moderated by Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation, discussed various efforts at the federal, state and local government levels to drive evidence-based policy and practice. But some in the audience and Twitter-verse wondered whether government could really be the impetus for a greater push towards measuring and managing outcomes in the nonprofit sector.
How Do You Get Buy-In For Change?
From the big, systemic view, the day quickly shifted for me to the organization-level with the fantastic panel on “Getting Buy-In” from staff, board and funders for a shift towards performance management. Isaac Castillo from DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, Bridget Laird from Wings for Kids, and Sotun Krouch from Roca explained how they had moved their nonprofits toward articulating and measuring outcomes. The most effective approach seemed to be to ask “Don’t you want to know whether the work we are doing is helping rather than hurting?” Isaac made the urgency to move toward performance management clear, “If you haven’t started doing performance management yet, in 12-18 months you will start losing funding to those who are.”
Can We Convince Funders to Invest?
Day 2 of the conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote address by Nancy Roob from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that really served as a call to action for the foundation world. Nancy painted a pretty stark picture of the disconnect she saw between how much money we’ve spent on solving social problems in the last decades and how much actual progress we’ve made. She blamed this disconnect on “our piecemeal approach to solutions.” As she bluntly put it, “We are woefully under-invested in what we already know works.” She laid out 5 steps funders can take to move away from piecemeal and toward transformational social change:
- Make bigger, multi-year investments
- Provide more upfront, unrestricted, flexible capital
- Invest in nonprofit evidence building
- Scale what works with innovation, and
- Adopt an investor mindset
But for Nancy, it’s not just up to funders, nonprofits also need to change. She urged nonprofits to:
- Shed the charity mindset
- Focus on the larger context
- Create a performance management culture, and
- Ask for help to achieve performance
From there, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy led a panel with Carol Thompson Cole from Venture Philanthropy Partners and Denise Zeman from Saint Luke’s Foundation asking “Do Funders Get it?” While a few funders are willing to invest in helping nonprofits articulate, measure and manage to outcomes, most are not. The panel suggested that some of this reluctance stems from funder’s lack of humility and fear of what they might find. Audience members suggested that it might also be funders’ lack of performance expertise. (You can read Phil Buchanan’s blog post giving more detail on this panel here.)
From there I attended a breakout session “Funder Investment Strategies to Strengthen Nonprofit Performance Management Capacity” where Victoria Vrana from the Gates Foundation and Lissette Rodriguez from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and two of their grantees discussed how they worked together to fund and create performance management systems.
The final panel of the day brought an impressive group of nonprofit CEOs together (Mindy Tarlow from Center for Employment Opportunities, Sam Cobbs from First Place for Youth, Cynthia Figueroa from Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Bill McCarthy from Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and Thomas Jenkins from Nurse-Family Partnership) to talk about how they each had built a performance management system at their organizations, the hurdles they encountered, how they funded it, and where they are now.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Mario Morino rounded out the conference with an inspiring call for us to build momentum. He outlined some new ideas coming out of the conference that he’d like to see developed by 2020, including:
- A “Manhattan Project” of social sector evidence
- A National Commission on Nonprofit High Performance
- An Aggregated Growth Capital Fund to deploy billions to solve entrenched national problems
- A Performance Academy for Social Impact
- Presidential Performance-to-Impact Awards
- Social Sector Center for Quality Improvement
- A Solutions Journalism Network to “lift up the hope spots” in the country
- Leap Learning Communities in local settings connected in a national web
This was one of the best conferences I’ve been to in years. The caliber of the presenters and audience was amazing. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of the next generation of the social sector. Buoyed by the ability to see the writing on the wall, this group is determined to lead the fundamental, and critical, shift towards a more effective sector.
The urgency of this movement became increasingly clear through the course of the two days. Our country is witnessing mounting disparity and crippling social challenges. It is increasingly up to the social sector to turn the tide. And the time is now. As Mario charged at the end of the conference “If we don’t figure out how to build high performing nonprofits, nothing else matters. This is the last mile. Our nation depends on it.”
Photo Credit: tableatny
There is a new conference in the social innovation space that I’m pretty excited about. After the Leap is the brainchild of Social Solutions CEO Steve Butz and his PerformWell partners, Child Trends and Urban Institute. The conference builds upon the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011.
Since writing Leap of Reason Mario has been on a crusade of sorts to the get the nonprofit sector to acknowledge that our new Era of Scarcity requires nonprofits to “literally reinvent themselves…[and] respond with greater discipline, unity, and focus on making a quantum change in the effectiveness and impact of our entire sector.” In essence he is encouraging nonprofits to determine what they exist to change and whether they are actually creating those changes.
As part of this movement, Mario and others have organized the After the Leap conference that will allow you to learn from experts in the field about how executives, practitioners and funders are advancing outcomes measurement and performance management, and what you can do in your own organizations and communities. The After the Leap conference will be held in Washington, D.C. on December 3rd and 4th.
Some of the keynote speakers include:
- Melody Barners, Former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council
- Nancy Roob, President of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
- Daniel Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, and
- Mario Morino
And the breakout sessions will cover everything from the Social Innovation Fund, to finding money for evaluation, to nonprofit case studies, to how to implement performance management systems, to effective leadership and much more.
Breakout session speakers are coming from the Gates Foundation, the Urban Institute, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, and other foundations, nonprofits and agencies at the leading edge of the outcomes movement.
I’m so excited about the conference that I’ve already registered. And I’ll be blogging and Tweeting from the conference as well.
If you are a nonprofit leader, board member, or funder interested in pushing your nonprofit towards measuring outcomes, this conference is for you. You can register here.
I hope to see you there!
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 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.
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
I’m excited to announce something a little different on the Social Velocity blog: a contest! Mario Morino, author of one of my favorite new books, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, has generously offered to give away a Leap of Reason board package to three lucky nonprofit readers of the Social Velocity blog. You can read my past review of the book and why I like it so much here and my past interview with Mario here.
The Leap of Reason board package will include a copy of the book for each board member and other supplemental materials to get the board discussing how to manage toward outcomes. If you would like to be entered into the contest, simply respond in the comments with a brief (1-3 sentence) description of why you think your nonprofit is ready to start managing toward outcomes.
In Leap of Reason, Morino, co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, argues that every nonprofit MUST, if it wants to survive in this new environment of “brutal austerity,” create a culture of performance. Many nonprofit organizations simply exist to “do good work.” But that is just not enough anymore. It’s not enough for those that fund the work, and it’s not enough for those who receive the services. Nonprofits must determine what they exist to change and whether they are actually creating those changes. Mario is ever-mindful, however, that large scale evaluation projects are simply unrealistic for the vast majority of nonprofits. They don’t have the money or time to devote to such projects. He and other experts in the book provide key initial steps and case studies to encourage nonprofits to develop their own ways to manage to outcomes.
So, if you think your nonprofit is ready to start managing to outcomes, and you’d like the Leap of Reason board package to help you along, respond in the comments with a short (1-3 sentence) explanation of why you think your nonprofit is ready.
I will then pick three winners. Each nonprofit winner will receive:
- A Leap of Reason book for each board member
- A Leap of Reason User Guide for each board member
- A Leap of Reason Supplemental Reading Packet for each board member
- A Leap of Reason Board Package Overview (a how-to guide for the executive director or board chair leading this process)
Update on February 21, 2012: The response to this contest was so great that Mario Morino graciously agreed to increase the number of winners to 20. Those 20 nonprofit winners have all been notified with the specifics about how to claim their Leap of Reason board packets. Thank you so much to everyone who participated! And I look forward to future Social Velocity blog contests!
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Carol Thompson Cole. Carol is President & CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), a philanthropic investment organization (co-founded by Mario Morino) that helps great leaders build strong, high-performing nonprofit institutions. She has over thirty years of management experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. She served as Special Advisor to President Clinton on the District of Columbia and was the Vice President for Government and Environmental Affairs at RJR Nabisco.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: This year marks Venture Philanthropy Partners’ 10 year anniversary. And in fact, venture philanthropy itself is only a little bit older. How has the concept of venture philanthropy changed since it first came on the scene?
Carol: People began talking about “venture philanthropy” about 11-12 years ago. Back then, it meant many different things, depending on who was speaking. Today, it still means many different things, but those organizations that work within this philanthropic mindset, like Venture Philanthropy Partners, have learned some important lessons along the way and share some common characteristics like a focus on performance, long-term financial commitments, investing in capacity and building infrastructure, and bringing resources in addition to capital to the table, to name a few.
At VPP, we actually moved away from using the term “venture philanthropy” a number of years ago as we realized that our approach was not a strictly “venture” approach. We are much more about blending some of the ways private equity firms approach their financial investments with many of the lessons learned and techniques developed by philanthropists through the years. We usually call ourselves a “philanthropic investment organization,” and we work to maximize all available resources, including capital, time, the skills and experience of our team, and the power of our network, to improve the lives of low-income children and youth in the National Capital Region.
Venture philanthropy arose out of the tech boom in the late 1990s, when many young entrepreneurs making their fortunes online decided to shift their resources into philanthropy. They saw a real opportunity to apply their business and management knowledge to nonprofits to create real, sustainable change for our society. These entrepreneurs decided to take the principles of venture capital that helped them become successful and shift that over into philanthropy.
Of course, the main strategies of venture philanthropy have been used, in some form or another, by grantmakers long before the late 90s. Venture philanthropists focus on high-engagement approaches to their grants, work to build capacity of organizations to scale their programs, and seek measured and proven outcomes as a result of their investment. Above all else, venture philanthropists use high-engagement techniques to bring more than just money to their partnership with nonprofits. Different grantmakers have refined their own ways of implementing these strategies, but they remain at the core of venture philanthropy, even a decade later.
Nell: When venture philanthropy started in the late 1990s it was thought to be a true innovation that could transform the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Has it lived up to those original ideas?
Carol: Venture philanthropy is a true innovation, but the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are large and complicated systems. Venture philanthropy is an effective tool that has helped us deliver strong results for the children and youth in the National Capital Region. VPP is focused on identifying outstanding nonprofit leaders with strong programs and bold ambitions to grow. We give them growth capital to build their infrastructure and scale their organizations through serving more children and youth, by increasing their outcomes and impact, or through influence – making systemic change that ultimately allows for many more lives to be changed. Our first fund has grown to serve an additional 16,000 youth.
Clearly, venture philanthropy has worked for us, but it is not the only answer for the nonprofit sector. It can be a useful tool to deliver results, but creating those results is more important than the way those results are created.
Nell: Venture philanthropy was in many ways the precursor to what has now become the social innovation movement. How do you think venture philanthropy fits into these new worlds of social investing, for-profit social entrepreneurship, and other areas where the public, private and nonprofit sectors are converging?
Carol: Again, venture philanthropy is a tool to be deployed in grantmaking. At VPP, we are focused on bringing a high-engagement model to our nonprofit partners and delivering results for the children and youth of the region. Social investing, social entrepreneurship, and other innovations coming out of the convergence of sectors are examples of similar tools to drive results. At the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference in March, where I spoke along side Paul Carttar of the Social Innovation Fund, there was a lot of discussion about what type of organizational structure is best to create social change and what type of funding an organization should seek out to achieve its mission. What became clear is that people need to focus on goals and strategy, not methods. Venture philanthropy complements programmatic sources of funding because it can help some organizations scale very effectively to help those who need it.
Nell: The federal government took a step into the world of social innovation last year with the Social Innovation Fund, which was based largely on the venture philanthropy model. What do you think of the SIF and how do you see government’s role (at both the local and federal levels) evolving from this?
Carol: VPP is a member of the inaugural portfolio of the Social Innovation Fund, and we are honored to be included among the other intermediary funders. We applied to SIF because the challenges in our community are too big and complex to be met by a single funder, a single nonprofit, or a single sector. What we need now is a “network” of nonprofits, funders, corporations, local governments, and the federal government working together to solve our most intractable problems.
SIF represents the first step towards that new form of collaboration. Speaking at the Harvard conference, Paul Carttar said that SIF was about much more than money, and it would be a success if the public-private partnership model was adopted by others across the country. In these lean times for funding, it is important that we work together to encourage social innovation where it is needed. SIF, as well as the other public-private innovations launched by the Obama administration, like Investing in Innovation and Race to the Top, are developments that should be encouraged. If we can continue to push local and federal government to take on this role as collaborator, we will be able to achieve much higher levels of impact in our communities.
Even the largest philanthropic investments are dwarfed by public funding and are often deeply effected by availability of public funding as well as how and when it is allocated. Not every partnership needs to be as formal as SIF, but I would urge all philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to look for ways to seek alignment with local, state, and federal government efforts.
Nell: What’s next for venture philanthropy? Where does it go from here? How do you continue to reinvigorate or adapt the model?
Carol: I strongly believe that SIF represents the next step for VPP, and for all of venture philanthropy. We feel our model of philanthropy works and our first investments were successful, but we also feel like there is potential to dramatically improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and youth in our regions through intense and intentional collaboration. Because of this, we applied to SIF.
Our SIF initiative, youthCONNECT, represents the next phase of our work. Instead of single investments, we are investing in a network of high-performing nonprofits that provide a number of different services to young people from low-income families to help them thrive in adulthood. All the nonprofits in the network share the goal of bringing education, job training, and social services to at least 20,000 low-income youth, ages 14-24, in our region over 5 years. As we demonstrate success, this approach can be replicated or adapted by others around the region and the country. We will still make high-impact, long-term investments in single organizations, but we are exploring the transformative power of a network approach.
It is too early to tell the effectiveness of youthCONNECT and SIF, but I think these developments are pushing us into the next generation of high-engagement philanthropy. At VPP, we are committed to evaluation, sharing, and transparency so we can learn from each other as we work in these unexplored areas.
Nell: One of the criticisms of venture philanthropy is that it is only accessible to the largest and most successful of nonprofits. Do you see smaller nonprofits being able to access the ideas of growth capital? And if so, how will this evolve?
Carol: VPP focuses on organizations with strong leaders that deliver results. We have historically focused on organizations with budgets of $3-$50 million, but in our youthCONNECT initiative we have invested in organizations that fall below that monetary requirement but still have a proven track record in the area. Investing in smaller organizations is a different approach than some venture philanthropists have used, but these smaller nonprofits should have opportunities to access growth capital. What is most important to VPP is that an organization, regardless of size, can deliver lasting and meaningful results for children and youth in our region. Change in the lives of those who need it most will always remain our priority.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Mario Morino. Mario is co-founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, and chairman of the Morino Institute, a nonprofit focused on technology for social change. His career spans more than 45 years as entrepreneur, technologist, and civic and business leader. He also recently wrote Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, which I recently reviewed here on the blog.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In your book Leap of Reason, you tell the leaders of the nonprofit sector that they need to make a fundamental shift in how they conduct business. Have you gotten any push back from nonprofits or philanthropists? Or has all of the response to the book been positive?
Mario: We are pushing for some hard changes, so we expected some hard reactions. But to our surprise, the response from nonprofit, for-profit, and public-sector leaders alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
We’ve asked ourselves why we’re not getting more push back. There are probably several factors at work. For one thing, the people who have taken the time to read the book are probably those who are more inclined to be receptive to this message. Those who are natural critics—for instance, those who believe mission and metrics are mutually exclusive or that discipline inhibits charismatic, entrepreneurial leadership—may not have read it. And so that shoe may drop at some point. The more we push beyond those already singing in the choir, the more constructive push back we’ll get.
I’d like to think that another factor is the way we presented the case. We made a forceful case, but we weren’t strident in our tone. We have a strong appreciation for the reasons why these management approaches have not been more widely adopted in the social sector. We sought to focus on what to do versus placing blame.
Nell: Do you think the majority of nonprofits will adopt an outcomes-management approach? And if so, when? What will be the tipping point?
Mario: Even when you take into account all of the work on outcomes, accountability, and mission-effectiveness over the past 15+ years, only a small slice of nonprofits (or government agencies, for that matter) have adopted an outcomes-management approach. So I fear that we’re in for only incremental adoption, unless our sector finds a way to seize the opportunity in this era of scarcity. This funding crisis can enervate or energize us. I really hope it’s the latter. In other words, I really hope this crisis will lead people to look much harder at what they do and how they can do it more efficiently and effectively. I hope it will cause them to go beyond incremental improvement and fine-tuning to rework fundamentally what it is they do.
Nell: It seems that this is a charge you are very much willing to lead. Beyond writing the book, what are you doing to lead the effort to create this fundamental shift in the nonprofit sector?
Mario: I would certainly like to join others in advancing this shift in the social sector and even lead in some areas. But I don’t think I’ve earned the stature to be the leader of a movement of this type. Even with 15+ years in the social sector, some still see me as a newbie!
As I said in the book, to help kick things off I would welcome helping to convene a select group of early adopters who have “been there and done that” and those most instrumental in helping them. I hope that a collective leadership will emerge and offer the beginning of an effort that could put our sector on a different and much more rapid trajectory.
As others began to follow their example, the network effect might well start to take hold. Imagine universities incorporating the outcomes-management mindset and discipline into nonprofit leadership curricula. Imagine funders offering outcomes-management grants to nonprofit leaders who show a real predisposition to use information well, and hiring seasoned staff members who have the expertise to provide strategic counsel and assistance to grantees. Imagine nonprofit leaders and staff joining together in peer-learning networks to share, learn, and push one another. Imagine government funders encouraging and rewarding successful outcomes management through new types of contracts and awards. A cadre of leaders and doers could help spark all of these things—and in doing so, spark a real movement.
Nell: What role can and should philanthropists, both foundations and individual donors, play in the effort to shift the nonprofit sector toward an outcomes approach?
Mario: Funders generally don’t provide the kind of financial support and strategic assistance that nonprofits need to make the leap to the outcomes-management discipline. While a lack of funding is by no means the only barrier, I know many nonprofit leaders who would take up the challenge in a heartbeat if funding, advice, and encouragement were available. The hard truth is that far too many funders have been conditioned to insist that every dollar “support the cause” through funding for programs. They don’t want “overhead” to dilute their grants.
To make the leap to outcomes management, nonprofits need creative funders, like the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, that are willing to help them manage smarter through greater use of information on performance and impact—rather than forcing them to meet myriad evaluation and reporting requirements that too often do little to help the organization learn and improve. They need funders who understand that making the leap requires more than program funding, and more than the typical “capacity-building” grant. They need funders who are willing to make multi-year investments and offer strategic assistance to help nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
Nell: What does an outcomes approach look like for a social service nonprofit with an annual budget of $100,000? How does this approach apply across the sector?
Mario: It’s hard to adopt this approach if you’re in an organization that small. It would be folly to expect a nonprofit with that budget to have formal outcomes systems, metrics, and the like. That said, I’ve never thought quality and “goodness” were functions of size. Shouldn’t every nonprofit, regardless of its size and infrastructure, have a clear sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, a thoughtful strategy for how it’s going to do so, and some sense of how it will know if it gets there? It’s perfectly understandable that such a small organization may never have crafted a “theory of change” in a formal way, but the organization’s leader needs to have this framework embedded in his or her mind. If not, what’s the rationale for asking others to contribute time and money to support the nonprofit’s work? What’s the basis for asking intended beneficiaries to put faith and trust in the nonprofit’s services?
Nell: What do you think will happen to nonprofit organizations that don’t adopt a managing to outcomes approach? What does the future look like for them?
Mario: They will continue on as they have—at least for a while.
The fiasco with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute is a cautionary tale. Mortenson had a great story, and for a while his donors took it on faith that his organization was delivering on his grand promises in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, it appears the organization turned out to be better at fattening Mortenson’s book royalties than building quality programs.
I don’t mean to suggest that all nonprofits are like Mortenson’s! Far from it. But I do mean to suggest that in an era of scarcity, there will be more pressure on nonprofits to show that they are delivering on their promises. More public and private funders will finally look under the hood and ensure things are working well.
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