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nonprofit theory of change

A Call to Arms for the Nonprofit Sector

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:

  1. 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.
  2. To contribute to the larger and future field. Future solutions will be stronger because they will be based on learnings from past solutions.
  3. 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.

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A Tool Box to Make Your Nonprofit Bigger, Better, Stronger

I wrote a few months ago that we are hard at work at Social Velocity creating tools to help smaller nonprofits do things bigger, better, more effectively and sustainably. And we got some great suggestions via the blog, Facebook and Twitter of the kinds of tools nonprofit leaders were looking for.

Well, I’m happy to announce that today we are releasing our first new tools. We have revamped the Tools page of our website and added a lot of new content. Our plan is to release additional tools every month.

I’m most excited about our new step-by-step guides. These are comprehensive, user friendly guides to help your staff and board start moving in a new direction. You can download our first three guides here:

But we also have podcasts, blog series, and other articles on the Tools page that are very hands-on and can help you, your board, staff and donors see things in a new way, try a different approach, employ a more innovative model and so on.

Social Velocity exists to help those small and medium-size nonprofits who want to be more entrepreneurial, grow their programs, get their board engaged and invested, raise money to build their organization, or break out of the starvation cycle. I’m very passionate about the fact that nonprofits need help to become stronger, better, more effective and sustainable at creating social impact.

Over the next several months we will continue to add to these tool categories, but also create new categories of tools such as webinars, e-books, worksheets, and templates. So keep your eye on our evolving Tools page, and please continue to give us your thoughts and feedback about these tools and other tools you would like to see.

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