nonprofit theory of change
Mario Morino’s new book, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, is probably misnamed. It is not the boring, theoretical guide to evaluation, measurement and logic models that the title implies. It is much more a call to arms for the nonprofit sector.
Morino, co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, argues that every nonprofit MUST, if it wants to survive in this new environment of “brutal austerity,” create a culture of performance. Indeed, he argues that “we will need nothing short of a quantum, sector-wide change.” Status quo simply will not work in the nonprofit sector anymore. And to help the movement along, they are offering the book in multiple formats, including free download on the VPP site.
As I read this book, I kept wanting to shout out, “Amen!” Finally someone argues so clearly why understanding if a social solution is working is not a luxury or a “nice to have” but rather an absolute necessity for our new reality. As Mario so eloquently puts it:
The magnitude of the combined hit – greatly reduced funding and increased need – will require organizations to literally reinvent themselves. Incremental responses will be insufficient…We can respond with infighting, robbing Peter to pay Paul, or continuing our incremental efforts to be better. Or we can respond with greater discipline, unity, and focus on making a quantum change in the effectiveness and impact of our entire sector.
He doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a completely new day.
Mario argues that every nonprofit organization must find a way to demonstrate the results of the work they engage in. And he and the other essayists in the book give some very clear reasons, beyond increased funding, why nonprofits must manage towards outcomes:
- To improve the lives of their clients. If you are tracking and analyzing whether you are making a difference in people’s lives, you are more likely to actually make a difference in their lives.
- To contribute to the larger and future field. Future solutions will be stronger because they will be based on learnings from past solutions.
- To stay competitive and relevant. The field of impact investing (investors who provide money to social entrepreneurs who can provide a financial and a social return) has increased the pressure for any social impact organization (nonprofit or for-profit) to demonstrate a social return.
Ultimately Mario is encouraging nonprofits to answer the very simple, but fundamental question “To What End?” So 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. Money is increasingly hard to find, while the problems that nonprofits exist to solve are growing increasingly complex. 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. After laying out his “call to arms” in the first half of the book, he and other experts provide key initial steps and case studies to encourage nonprofits to develop their own ways to manage to outcomes.
At the core, Mario is arguing for a culture shift. He believes that if nonprofit leaders can start to move their organizations towards the mindset and discipline of answering “To What End,” the sector as a whole will be transformed and ultimately more effective at creating change.