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
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Bill Shore. Bill is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in America. He has served on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart and as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey. He is also the author of four books focused on social change, including, The Cathedral Within.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You’ve been on a (writing) kick lately encouraging nonprofits to make bigger, bolder goals. Which do you think comes first: bold goals or a sustainable financial model? And how are the two related?
Bill: Just as every journey aims toward a destination, every social change effort should start with a goal, bold or otherwise. A sustainable financial model, while critical, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. We began Share Our Strength with a financial model based more on cause-related marketing and corporate partnerships than on traditional fundraising. By leveraging the assets we’d created and delivering measurable value back to our partners, we generated significant revenues in ways that felt more sustainable. We were a grant maker to other organizations, and proud of the good work they did, but ultimately it was unsatisfying not connected to a bold goal.
Nell: The stated bold goal of Share Our Strength is to eradicate childhood hunger in America by 2015. That’s 2 years away. Will you get there? And how has your experience working toward that bold goal affected your thinking about how realistic bold goals are?
Bill: It’s a great question because a bold goal is a double edged sword. If you achieve it the market will reward you. And if you don’t it may penalize you. That’s all as it should be. But the real reason to do it is not the market or fundraising or the media, but for oneself. When you devote a lot of your life tackling tough social problems, you deserve to know whether you are moving the needle. We’ve seen the market reward Share Our Strength for simply setting the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Our revenues have more than doubled, and that has fueled increased impact. We will not get all of the way to our goal by 2015. We will need more time. But we believe we will have earned it. In the states and regions where we have concentrated our resources we will have proven that childhood hunger can be eradicated. We believe that such compelling proof of concept will give us the support necessary to scale the strategy everywhere.
Nell: You have argued that nonprofits are not resource-constrained, rather that they “suffer a crisis of confidence” in investing in their own capacity. Some might argue that that’s easy for the head of a $40+ million nonprofit to say. How do you think the average nonprofit can move beyond the starvation cycle of never having enough resources?
Bill: It’s not that nonprofits are not resource constrained, it’s because almost all of them are that it is even more important to invest in their own capacity, to take a long view and be willing to trade off impact in the short-term if that impact can be multiplied dramatically in the long term. Imagine a maternal and child health clinic that serves 50 women a day and makes the decision to serve only 25 a day for 6 months so that it can invest in capacity that will enable it to serve 500 a day when the six months are up. The compelling nature of urgent human need makes that a tough decision to make, but it’s the right one if you have the confidence that more capacity will equal more impact.
Nell: Moving to bold goals necessitates a way to measure whether those goals have been achieved. Yet outcomes measurement is a very nascent practice in the nonprofit sector. How do we (or can we) get to a place where we are effectively measuring the results of both individual nonprofits and larger solutions? And who will pay for that work?
Bill: As your question suggests, measuring outcomes, and communicating what you’ve measured, comes at a price. Indeed it can be expensive, and that might mean less money devoted to program in the short-term. With few exceptions there won’t be third parties lined up to pay for it. Organizations will have to decide whether it adds to their long-term competitive strengths to invest in measuring outcomes and if it does, they should be willing to make that investment. A key task of organizational leadership is to marshal the will for these investments that don’t pay off until the long-term. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that measurement is a still nascent practice, there won’t be common measure that can be adopted in a one-size-fits-all manner, and so each organization must wrestle to the ground the metrics that are right for their work.
Nell: What about bold philanthropy and bold government? Is it possible for those two sectors to be more bold? What would that look like and how optimistic are you that those kinds of changes are possible?
Bill: I’m confident that bolder philanthropy can lead to bolder government. Our politics currently is so polarized and paralyzed that people need to see examples of programs that work. Philanthropy can do things that government can’t do: take risks, innovate, and be closer to the people we serve. And when that all adds up to a program or service that works, it creates an even greater moral obligation on the part of the public sector, i.e. government to take what works and help scale it. Resource constraints and failures of imagination have conditioned us to pursue incremental change. But big and complex problems demand transformational change to address those problems on the scale that they exist.
Photo Credit: Share Our Strength
It was really hard to narrow down to 10 great reads this month. People wrote some really compelling (even more than usual) things in October. And some longer pieces in particular were quite thought-provoking. Some asked searing questions like “Is arts innovation really innovative?” and “Is increasing income disparity making us less empathetic?” and “Can philanthropy fix our broken democracy?” And that’s just a start. Lots to think about.
Below are my picks of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in October. But please add what I missed in the comments.
- The conversation about the overhead myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should be evaluated based on how much they spend on overhead (fundraising and administrative expenses), still rages on. First Paul Hogan from the John R. Oishei Foundation reframes the argument to include general operating and program support. Then Heather Peeler from GEO reports on a panel at a recent gathering of Social Innovation Fund grantees and grantors discussing what funders can do to build more sustainable organizations. And Julie Brandt writes a ringing endorsement of the overhead myth movement arguing that “Donors need to focus on evaluating charities based on leadership, transparency, governance, and results.”
- But lest you think that everyone agrees, Tiziana Dearing raises some good points about nonprofits not yet having the necessary resources or tools to boil outcomes down to short term ratios or ratings. As she says, “Everyone has more work to do.”
- There were some great examples of nonprofits using social media in interesting ways. From the Social Media BirdBrain blog comes 4 Best Examples of Nonprofit Video Storytelling and from the HubSpot blog, 10 Nonprofits That Are Totally Nailing Pinterest Marketing.
- And speaking of innovatively using media to move social change forward, this infographic on America’s school dropout problem demonstrates a concise and compelling way to explain a complex problem.
- Part of the potential solution to America’s education problems might lie in new science. An interesting new school within Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project is using neuroscience to teach children in new ways.
- If you really want to unpack the buzz around “innovation,” particularly in the arts, take a look at this really interesting, thought-provoking 6-essay series at Culturebot questioning innovation and the arts, what’s working and what isn’t. It is well worth your time and is guaranteed to make you think.
- On the Idealist blog, April Greene wisely counsels those entering the social change space, that if you want to pursue your dreams, don’t tell your mother. Such good advice, ha!
- Richard Eisenberg provides some really interesting analysis of recent data and what it tells us about how generations approach giving differently.
- Writing in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman worries that the widening income gap may be creating a widening empathy gap because “social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.” Very scary.
- President of the MacArthur Foundation, Robert Gallucci writes a passionate plea that philanthropy help fix a quite broken (as particularly evidenced in October’s federal government shutdown) American political system.
Photo Credit: ekelley89
Note: I was asked by Markets for Good to write a post as part of their ongoing online conversation about improving how money flows to social change. Markets for Good is an effort by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the financial firm Liquidnet to improve the system for generating, sharing, and acting upon data and information in the social sector.
Over the past several years, Markets for Good has been a forum for discussion and collaboration among online giving platforms, nonprofit information providers, nonprofit evaluators, philanthropic advisors, and other entities working to improve the global philanthropic system and social sector. Below is the post I wrote. You can see this post and the others in their series and contribute to the ongoing conversation at the Markets for Good blog.
As we talk about creating a space “where capital flows efficiently to the organizations that are having the greatest impact” we must address the elephant in the room: how nonprofits are funded.
Currently that’s a pretty broken model. And if we are ever to direct more money to more social change, we must fix it.
In an ideal world, a social change organization would create a potential solution to a social problem, prove that the solution actual resulted in change, and then attract sustainable funding to grow that solution.
But that’s not currently happening because the way nonprofits are funded is broken in three key ways:
Nonprofits don’t articulate a theory of change. 10 years ago it was enough for “charities” to “do good work.” In an ever-increasing drumbeat nonprofits are being asked to demonstrate outcomes and impact. And for good reason. If we are truly interested in social change then we must understand which organizations are actually creating it and thus deserve our investment.
But you cannot demonstrate outcomes and impact if you have not first articulated what outcomes and impact you think your solution provides. Those nonprofits that truly want to solve a social problem (as opposed to simply provide social services) must articulate a theory of change. A theory of change is an argument for how a nonprofit turns community resources (money, volunteers, clients, staff) into positive change to a social problem. It seems simple, yet most nonprofits working toward social change have not done this.
We need to change that. This simple argument is the first step in creating real, lasting social change and attracting money to be able to do it in a financially sustainable way.
Nonprofits struggle to prove impact. Once a theory of change is in place, nonprofits need to prove whether that theory is actually becoming a reality. Nonprofits have struggled for years to figure out how to measure whether they are actually achieving results. But they cannot figure it out on their own.
Philanthropy needs to step up to help fund the work, or on a much larger scale, social science could prove the impact of overall interventions that nonprofits can then implement.
Either way, the burden of proof can no longer rest solely on the shoulders of individual nonprofits.
Fundraising isn’t sustainable. Once social change is actually happening, we want to grow that effective solution in a sustainable way. But that necessitates a real financial model.
Most nonprofits chase low-return fundraising efforts that lock them into a band-aid approach that is far from financial sustainability. Few nonprofits create and execute on an overall strategic financial model that aligns with the impact they want to achieve and their organizational assets.
We have to stop the madness.
We must help nonprofits create an overall financial engine that strategically and effectively supports the social change they are working toward.
Philanthropists must provide nonprofits the runway necessary to find the right financial model for their organizations. Capacity capital funding could do this, allowing nonprofits the space to analyze their current money-raising activities and create and execute on a plan for transforming those into a sustainable financial model. The end result would be nonprofits with a great solution to offer suddenly have the ability to grow the solution in a sustainable way.
If we are really serious about directing more money to more social change, we need to reinvent how money flows to nonprofits. Instead of relying on a broken fundraising model, we need to take a big step back and get strategic. With articulated theories of change, systems for effectively proving impact and the runway to create real financial models, nonprofits will be able to bring social change to sustainable fruition.
Photo Credit: Markets for Good
A big topic of conversation lately has been whether donors really care about impact, or whether they simply just give based on less scientific things like their emotions, or their friends recommendations. Which is why I’m excited to announce that I’ll be participating in a Google Hangout April 30th about using data to attract donors.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Ogden claims that donors have never really been interested in impact. And Ken Berger from Charity Navigator and William Schambra of the Hudson Institute debate (here and here) whether moving the nonprofit sector toward performance management helps or hurts social change efforts.
To add to this conversation, David Henderson and I are hosting a Google Hangout, “How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money,” on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern. David is a super smart guy who runs Idealistics, a consultancy that helps nonprofits learn from their outcomes data, increase impact, and demonstrate results to funders and stakeholders. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to implement higher impact poverty interventions. He has been quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and has written for Change.org and the Huffington Post. You can read my interview with him from a year and a half ago here.
David and I thought it would be interesting to host a conversation with nonprofit leaders about how nonprofits can use real performance data to raise more money. We’ll kick off the hour-long conversation with a couple of points and a case study or two of nonprofits that are using data to raise more money, but then we’ll open it up to you for questions. You can send us your questions ahead of time (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) or simply post them to the Google Hangout here as you watch.
I hope you’ll join us!
How to Use Real Performance Data to Raise More Money
A Google Hangout with David Henderson and Nell Edgington
Tuesday, April 30th, 2013
Can nonprofits that use real performance data to raise more money? Are donor increasingly interested in impact data? How can nonprofits communicate their program data to donors? And how should nonprofits respond to questionable performance claims by other organizations? Join David Henderson from Idealistics and Nell Edgington from Social Velocity in a Google Hangout on Tuesday, April 30th at 2pm Eastern to discuss these and many more questions about how nonprofits can use real data to raise more money. We’d love to have you participate in the discussion, so send your questions ahead of time to Nell or David, or leave a comment at the Google Hangout here.
Photo Credit: 401(K) 2013
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.
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.
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