It is obvious to most in this country that our political system is quite broken. A gridlocked Congress, a shilling mainstream media, a checked-out electorate, and the list goes on. But last week I saw some hope.
I participated in a really interesting gathering in Baltimore hosted by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As part of their Madison Initiative (a $50 million project to “support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States”) Hewlett brought together 90 nonprofit and government leaders, consultants, journalists, heads of think tanks, and other foundation leaders to connect and analyze.
It was a fascinating few days. Through conversations and design-thinking sessions we were encouraged to stretch our thinking about solutions to the often depressing state of American government. I met some inspiring people who are creating solutions to our broken political system. (A few have agreed to be interviewed on the blog, so stay tuned.)
I am only tangential to this world of political reform, so for me it was interesting to see how conversations happening here can inform social change more broadly.
A few things occurred to me over the course of the three days about what effective social change requires:
Networks AND Institutions
Networks, loose connections of people and groups, exist outside of our 200+ year-old political institutions, but social change happens when networks organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt. This happened in the civil rights movement, recent global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.
Millennials AND Boomers
Echoing Robert Egger’s guest post this past summer on this blog, both Millennial and Boomer generations have a deep commitment to social change and the critical mass necessary to make it happen. But they would be even more effective at creating social change if they worked together, instead of against each other. Millennials need to recognize that Boomers fought for system change in their day (civil rights, women’s rights) and Boomers need to recognize that Millennials are creating similar kinds of system change, just with new tools and technologies. The two must find connections and collaborate more often. And I think Gen Xers (of which I am one) can play a critical role in translating between the two generations.
This is a huge country and sometimes that reality gets in the way of change. Red vs. blue, rural vs. urban, Eastern time zone vs. Western time zone, coastal vs. flyover states, there are many ways to slice our country. It amazes me how often people focus on geographic differences instead of common values and goals. But true change comes when we break down those walls and have a conversation based on shared values rather than opposing frames of reference. The only way we move beyond impasse is for each side to listen with a completely open mind (free of assumptions and stereotypes) to the other side. And occasionally leave our comfort zone and meet others where they are.
At the end of the day, political reform is no different than any other social change we seek. To create positive change we must move beyond the dichotomies. We have to think much bigger. Perhaps the answer to our political woes is the same as the answer to our other social challenges, as E.M. Forster put it, “Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
There were some pretty exciting things happening in the world of social innovation last month. From a new fund to make philanthropy more effective, to a new blog series written by funders making the case for investing in nonprofit leadership, to some ideas for making performance measurement more accessible to small nonprofits and arts and culture organizations, to some interesting partnerships between philanthropy and city government.
It all made for a great month of reads. Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in social innovation in September. As always, add what I missed to the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.
You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.
- The Fund for Shared Insight, a collaboration among seven major foundations, launched in September. The group plans to “pool financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy…to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.” They plan to be very transparent with this entire experiment. I can’t wait to see what develops.
- Another development in the realm of improving philanthropy was the launch of the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog series where foundation leaders discuss why and how they have invested in nonprofit leadership development. As I mentioned earlier, Ira Hirschfield from the Haas Foundation kicked off the series, and Surina Khan from the Women’s Foundation of California was next up. To have such an open dialogue about nonprofit capacity investments, particularly around leadership development, is amazing. Let’s hope it encourages similar conversations outside the blogosphere.
- And the third piece from the world of philanthropic enlightenment, Daniel Stid of the Hewlett Foundation wrote a great post about ending the nonprofit starvation cycle. As he put it, “Effective leaders need to be willing to take the risk of saying something that a funder might not want to hear when their organization’s long run effectiveness is at stake. If they are not, then shame on them. Funders, for our part, should fund the full cost of the work we are asking our grantees to undertake in a way that leaves their overall organization and its finances whole; if we don’t, then shame on us.” Amen!
- There is further evidence that philanthropy as we know it is changing – a new report by The Economist takes a hard look at how Generations X and Y (those born between 1966 and 1994) are transforming philanthropy, particularly around “a strong desire to have a measurable, enduring impact.” This is exciting because if donors increasingly invest based on results, we can shift more money to social change. As the authors of the report put it, “The young generation of givers is focused on data, measurement and demonstrable results. More than any other generation, they want to check facts, know all the information ahead of time and ensure that they are well-informed at every stage of the process.”
- And there was lots to say about measuring performance this month. The Foundation Center and WINGS, a global network of 90 support organizations serving philanthropy in 35 countries, announced the creation of The Global Philanthropy Data Charter to gather and share philanthropy data for public benefit.
- Measuring impact is complex and costly, but Carly Pippin from Measuring Success, offers 4 steps for how small nonprofits can assess impact affordably.
- Measurement is particularly challenging in the arts and culture arena because, as Natasha Bloor of The Old Vic Theatre explains, “There is an understandable reticence within the cultural and creative industries when it comes to proving the social value of art. For many, the arts have an intrinsic worth that cannot be mapped or measured, with the primary benefit found in creative self-expression itself, rather than the longer-term effects experienced afterwards.” But she offers a new approach that they have found very effective.
- And for a completely free way to assess the social value of building low-cost housing, child-care centers, and health clinics there is the Social Impact Calculator, developed by the Low Income Investment Fund. They developed the tool to measure the effect of their own work and then decided to share it.
- Stephanie Jacobs of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund offers some tips to turn your board into the financial leaders they need to be.
- And finally, there were some interesting examples of partnerships between local government and philanthropy aimed at strengthening cities. Rona Jackson from Living Cities described 5 ways philanthropy and local government can work together. And the Kalamazoo Promise, a partnership between local philanthropists and city schools that pays tuition at a Michigan college for any student who graduates from a Kalamazoo school, shows these ideas in action.
Photo Credit: Valerie Everett
The other day I was talking to a nonprofit executive director who was delighted because he finally convinced a reluctant board member to become board chair. Over the past year, this board member had been delinquent in his meeting attendance and fundraising requirements. But since the executive director had no other viable candidates for the chairmanship, he was incredibly grateful that this board member finally relented and agreed to become chair.
What kind of crazy is this?
Gratitude is being thankful when someone performs a helpful act. But in the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work.
If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment, she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships.
Nonprofit leaders could stand to be a little less grateful for:
Board Members Who Aren’t Thrilled to Serve
If a board member doesn’t want to be there, and they are making that blatantly obvious (by not showing up to board meetings, not meeting their give/get requirement, or derailing board meetings with self-serving tangents) then take them at their word. Stop thanking them for serving and instead have a conversation about their poor performance. Ask them to change or resign. Don’t be grateful that you have 15 warm bodies listed on your letterhead. Each ineffective board member takes up space that could be filled by a committed and productive member. So take a hard look at the actual performance of each board member and build a board for which you can actually be grateful.
Donors Who Don’t Fund Real Costs
There is (I hope) a growing recognition in the sector that you cannot have high-quality, results-driven solutions without the appropriate staff, technology, systems and infrastructure behind them. Not every donor is there yet – by a long shot – but when a donor wants to fund the programs they love, you need to educate them about all of the costs involved in those programs. And if they want the “program” without the “overhead,” explain that the two are inextricably bound and an inferior investment will yield an inferior result.
Superfluous In-Kind Gifts
Nonprofits cannot be the dumping ground for the things companies want to get rid of while they enjoy a fat tax write-off. If a donor wants to give your literacy program boxes of age-inappropriate books, or your food bank out-of-date Halloween candy, or your management team old, slow computers, just say “No”. You shouldn’t be grateful for something that makes your job harder. Take the opportunity to educate the potential donor about the work you do, how important it is, and the most effective ways to support that work. And if they just want the tax write off, suggest which more appropriate gifts (including money) would earn it.
An Inexperienced Fundraiser
I see this all the time. A nonprofit won’t pay a market rate salary for a high-calibre fundraising director so they recruit an inexperienced person who eventually fails. Instead of being grateful that your board will let you hire an underpaid fundraiser, or grateful that someone is willing to take the position, talk to the board about what is really going on. If you don’t make fundraising part of everyone’s job and hire someone to truly lead those efforts, you are simply setting the organization up for failure. Make your financial model a key part of your overall strategy and then hire (and pay appropriately) the right person necessary to lead that financial strategy.
Rise from bended knee with confidence in yourself, your staff, and your social change work to articulate what you really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And you get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in your way.
Photo Credit: Victor Bezrukov
We spend a lot of time in this country talking about innovation, particularly on the East and West coasts. But I was reminded recently that innovation can happen anywhere, even in the “fly over states” (which is such an obnoxious term, by the way).
I was in South Boston, Virginia last week to deliver a Financial Model Assessment to the Halifax Educational Foundation. They fund the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), which is a fascinating model of higher education innovation.
Almost 30 years ago community leaders in this tiny, rural town 75 miles from Raleigh, North Carolina realized that their primary industries of tobacco, textiles and furniture were fading fast. In order to revamp their local economy, they decided to create a hybrid higher education institution (part community college, part incubator, part workforce development site, part educational broker) that would prepare the next generation workforce.
The SVHEC renovated two 150-year old abandoned tobacco warehouses (one to LEED certification) into 100,000 square feet of high-tech classrooms and labs featuring advanced machining and simulation technology focused on nursing, advanced manufacturing, 3-D modeling, and the business of art and design. Their goal is “to re-tool southern Virginia’s rural workforce for jobs in the New Economy.”
They have created an example of what innovative higher education can look like. The video below describes the center, which although located in the middle of rural America, rivals most large city higher education institutions:
The SVHEC recognized early the threat that changing times posed to their community and created a solution that not only recycled beautiful old buildings, but more importantly breathed new life into a rural economy on the brink of extinction. Theirs is truly a model for innovative rural economic development.
And it is testament to the fact that social innovation can happen anywhere.
Because social change doesn’t require big names, huge ideas, or deep pocketbooks. It simply demands a confident vision and the leadership and tenacity necessary to execute on it.
Photo Credit: SVHEC, Steve Helber
Between my own time away from social media in August, the general end of summer quiet, and of course, the glut of posts about the Ice Bucket challenge (of which I have already said my piece), my list of great reads in August is admittedly slim.
But there was some interesting debate, most notably about “strategic philanthropy” and about ratings agency Philanthropedia. Also, calls for more nonprofit leadership development and for nonprofit leaders to get out of their own way by taking the Overhead Pledge. Throw in a little Mark Twain, some sharing economy, and a dash of Millennial analysis and you have a pretty good month in the world of social change.
So below is my pick of the 10 best reads in the world of social innovation in August. For an expanded list you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Leadership development is a woefully underfunded need in the nonprofit sector. Indeed from 1992-2011 only $3.5 billion of the nearly $287 billion dollars granted by foundations went to support leadership. In order to get more foundations investing in leadership development, Rusty Stahl offers case studies of 9 foundations who already do.
- In the summer issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, the lead article “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” caused quite a stir in the philanthropy world with many arguing that there is not much new there. In August, Alliance Magazine ran a series of editorials by philanthropy leaders as counterpoints. Most interesting among them was Avila Kilmurray’s, former director of the Community Foundation of Northern Ireland, response, in which she said “Can we not just recognize that when any funder sets her/himself the task of addressing complex issues…there needs to be provision for continuous consultation, practice, reflection and change?”
- An interesting article in the New York Times paints the Millennial generation as a very communal-minded one, where “the highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.” From working, to eating, to shopping it seems Millennials bake social into everything they do. How will the world be different if that holds true as they age?
- Writing in Forbes, Tom Watson asks whether nonprofits should participate in GivingTuesday. As he puts it, “Is #GivingTuesday a well-meaning marketing promotion – or is it a real, organic movement for change?…[Does it] seek to increase U.S. giving from 2% of GDP (where it’s been stuck for two generations) to some higher point?” Amen to that!
- Rating nonprofit effectiveness is such a tricky challenge. Philanthropedia, one rating system that is driven by crowdsourced feedback from experts, comes under fire from the clean water space for being just “a popularity contest.” But others claim it’s an improvement over previous evaluations.
- Writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy Nicole Wallace shows the value of sharing data by profiling Crisis Text Line, which gives other nonprofits, researchers and government agencies access to their data of 60,000 counseling sessions with teens in crisis to use in their own programs. It begs the question whether other social change data could be shared and how we make that easier to do.
- Sue Dorsey from Water for People was among a group of nonprofit leaders at the InsideNGO conference who took the Overhead Pledge in August, vowing to fully disclose the true costs of their nonprofits. And she encourages other nonprofit leaders to follow suit. This is exciting because it is not enough for funders to get over the overhead myth, nonprofit leaders must as well.
- I am always a sucker for connecting literature and/or history to social change, and even better both, so David Bonbright’s post about how Mark Twain would have viewed recent trends in business is fascinating. Bonbright argues that Twain wanted American business to fully integrate profit and community. And we are beginning to witness this trend again where companies are “embracing the full implications of what they are – what they mean for the environment, for communities, for the most marginalized people affected by their supply chains…[because] this is best way to remain competitive and successful over time.” Let’s hope!
- The new “sharing” economy is not all good, but not all bad either, as Daniel Ben-Horin argues that “there are enormous opportunities for the social sector to engage with the values-driven segment of the sharing economy.”
- Finally, some guidance on making your nonprofit email marketing more mobile friendly and your website better able to connect people to your cause. It’s all about responsive, engaging design.
Photo Credit: Seth Anderson
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, the clearinghouse of information on nonprofits. Jacob came to GuideStar from the Hewlett Foundation, where he led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. Between 2006 and 2012, he oversaw $30 million in grants that, together, aimed to build a 21st-century infrastructure for smart giving. Jacob was just named to the 2014 NonProfit Times’ Power and Influence Top 50.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: It has been over a year since the Letter to the Donors of America about the overhead myth. Where are we today in getting donors (and board members) to understand that overhead is a destructive mindset?
Jacob: I’m glad to report that the response to the first overhead myth letter far exceeded our expectations. Hundreds of articles have been written about the letter. It comes up almost every time I hold a meeting or give a talk. For at least a few people, I think it’s been a deep affirmation of something they’ve known a long time. And, indeed, many others in the field have been working on this: the Donors Forum, Bridgespan, the National Council on Nonprofits, and others.
But we also know that we have a long road ahead of us. The overhead myth is deeply ingrained in the culture and systems of the nonprofit sector. It will take years of concerted effort for us to fully move past such a narrow view of nonprofit performance to something that reflects the complexity of the world around us. But it’s essential if we want to ensure we have a nonprofit sector capable of tackling the great challenges of our time.
Nell: The Letter to the Donors of America was obviously focused on the donor side of the problem, but how do we also change the mindset of those nonprofit leaders who perpetuate the Overhead Myth in their reporting, conversations with donors and board members, etc.?
Jacob: This is a critical aspect of the challenge. Every year nonprofits send out something like one billion pieces of direct mail to donors that prominently display their organization’s overhead ratio. It’s no wonder that donors think that’s a proxy for performance—we’ve trained donors to think so!
That’s why the CEOs of Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance and I are currently working on a second overhead myth letter—this one to the nonprofits of America. We’re still finalizing the text, but in it we will be calling on nonprofits to be more proactive about communicating the story of their programmatic work, their governance structures, and the real costs of achieving results. And, more, we want to recruit nonprofits to help us retrain donors to pay attention to what matters: results. In the end, that means that nonprofits have to cut the pie charts showing overhead versus program—and instead step up to the much more important challenge of communicating how you track progress against your mission.
Nell: At the Social Impact Exchange Conference you announced some pretty exciting plans with the GuideStar Exchange to, in essence, create a marketplace of information about nonprofits so that the best nonprofits receive more resources. Talk a little about your plans for the Exchange, and most importantly, how you plan to bring nonprofits and donors there.
Jacob: The GuideStar Exchange is our mechanism for collecting data directly from nonprofits. By going straight to nonprofits we can build on the data we already have from the IRS Form 990. The 990 is a regulatory document, it’s not meant to offer a comprehensive view of nonprofits and their programs—that’s what we’re trying to do with the Exchange. And it also lets us get information much more quickly!
So far we’ve had great success. More than 100,000 nonprofits have shared data with us through the GuideStar Exchange and more than 38,000 have reached one of what we call our participation levels—Bronze, Silver, or Gold. But we have a long way to go if we want to approach a comprehensive view of the marketplace. So we’re adding new incentives for nonprofits to share data through the Exchange, building new ways to distribute that data through other channels and improving the user interface to make the process easier. Right now we’re collecting quantitative financial data and qualitative programmatic data but later this year we’re going to release a tool for collecting quantitative programmatic data, too.
This comes back to the overhead myth campaign. If we’re going to ask donors to go beyond the overhead ratio when considering nonprofits, we have to offer an alternative. GuideStar Exchange is a critical part of that alternative: a chance for nonprofits to tell their story in a structured way that forces them to articulate in clear terms what they’re trying to accomplish, how they’ll get there, and how they’ll measure progress along the way.
Nell: The Money for Good reports that came out a couple of years ago rather discouragingly found that the majority of donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. With the GuideStar Exchange you obviously think that is changeable, so how do we go about changing donor interest and behavior?
Jacob: Well, I had a different read of that data. It is absolutely true that the Money for Good research showed that most donors don’t give based on nonprofit results. But it also showed that a significant portion—about 15%, depending on how you cut the data—do. That may not seem like much, but that represents 30 million people responsible for close to $40 billion in annual giving. So there’s already a huge unserved market, even if it represents a small portion of the entire system of philanthropy.
And at GuideStar we see this every day. We have 7 million unique users a year. And that’s just on our website, our data was used another 22 million times on other platforms last year through just one of our distribution mechanisms. So people want data. And as we get more and more programmatic data—data that is oriented towards results against mission—I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to unlock new behaviors among donors, nonprofit executives, journalists, and others. The nonprofit sector is about to enter a new phase, and I think it’s going to be remarkable.
Photo Credit: GuideStar
Note: Fourth in my list of guest bloggers this summer is Jessamyn Lau. Jessamyn is Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, a family foundation that invests in and serves social entrepreneurs. Here is her guest post:
At the Peery Foundation, we’re hungry for insight into what a truly grantee-centric approach to philanthropy looks like. About five months ago we had an idea. What if we could hear regular, brief, unfiltered feedback from our grantees on what we do and how we do it?
We occasionally solicit input from our grantees on delicate questions, like “how should we give feedback to a grant-seeker when we have major concerns about leadership?”. Our grantees have incredible ideas, often helping us solve problems and ensure we incorporate their experience into solutions. But what about capturing their untapped insights into our everyday grant making approach?
This doesn’t generally happen because 1) grantees are rarely asked for their opinions on funder practices, 2) when they are asked, grantee opinions are heavily filtered to prevent potential risk to future funding. We think the Peery Foundation team, and a large proportion of philanthropic professionals, could benefit from regular open feedback from grantees. In a February 2014 Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled “Assessing Funders’ Performance” Caroline Fiennes suggested listening to grantees as a core part of funder performance assessment. This resonated with our idea of what it means to be truly grantee-centric. So we thought about how we might do that – without reinventing the wheel.
We landed on a very simple anonymous rating tool, similar to the rating systems used by Amazon, Uber, and other service providers. The good folks at Advocate Creative built us a prototype site – which we named, imaginatively, Funder Feedback. It’s a very simple, concise survey that solicits anonymous information from our grantees (or anyone else I interact with), at any time they choose. They rate me out of five stars on three aspects (currently Respectfulness, Consistency, Value), and then leave any feedback for me in a text box. It takes 30 seconds to fill out – 90 seconds if you ponder on what to write in the text box for a minute! Each person on our team has their own survey link, so the results can be used for individual professional development. You can see my survey here.
Over three months the Peery Foundation team and the Tipping Point team piloted the tool, inviting people to give us feedback on our recent interactions. At the end of the pilot our results were delivered to us on a dashboard in aggregate (see below), with no time or date stamps – so unless someone mentioned their organization they are anonymous.
So did it work?
Our team’s response rate ranged from 10 to 40 completed surveys for the pilot. The star rating system yielded average results from 4.7 to 5 stars. Given this clustering it’s clear that the rating system is not a proactive way for us to find out where we need to improve, but could serve as a warning system that will alert us if something needs attention. We could also potentially change the three starred rating topics from values to processes, e.g. “Please rate us out of 5 stars on our due diligence, reporting, and grant making exit processes”. Something to consider down the road.
Over 50% of respondents left us written feedback. The overwhelming majority of feedback was positive and reaffirming. It served as personal affirmation of the aspects of each individual’s approach appreciated by grantees (transparency was mentioned consistently for one team member, another received specific feedback around the value of their preparation for meetings with grantees).
There was also feedback letting us know what we should keep doing as a foundation. For instance, we had several people comment on how valuable warm introductions to other funders had been. This was great to hear because in the past year we’ve allocated significant time to building and maintaining our funder network. We knew this time was useful for us – as we shared pipeline and recommendations with other funders – but knowing that this provides real value to our grantees makes it an even higher priority for us to continue and improve.
What didn’t work?
We would like to receive even more specific and critical feedback. We believe the tool will become truly useful when grantees and others we interact with are clearly invited to give us more constructive opinions. We want to ensure they are comfortable in doing that, which will probably involve tweaking the way we frame the tool, and also building trust that we will truly listen to and implement advice as often as we can.
To solicit distinct feedback, we’ll change the descriptor text on the text box each quarter to give people permission to be specific and critical. For example, next quarter it might say “Please compare the Peery Foundation’s reporting process to that of other foundations you’ve worked with. What can we learn from other processes?”, and the following quarter it might be, “What’s one thing we should keep doing and one thing we should change about the Peery Foundation’s philanthropic approach?”.
Continuing the experiment
At the Peery Foundation we’re accustomed to the process of iteration and, when appropriate, dropping a project that simply isn’t working. We like to experiment. For now, we think we’ve seen enough promise to continue developing the Funder Feedback tool. On an individual level it can help us as philanthropy professionals see where we have room for growth. As a foundation, we know we need insights from our grantees to become truly efficient and effective.
And philanthropy as a field might do well to turn the tables a little, listen regularly to grantees’ insights, and reign in the power imbalance inherent in our work.
So, for now we’ll keep experimenting with the Funder Feedback tool and articulating the changes we’ll make with it to help us become a genuinely grantee-centric foundation.
Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum
Note: Third in my list of guest bloggers this summer is David Henderson. David’s professional focus is on improving the way social sector organizations use information to address poverty. Here is his guest post:
I was recently turned down for a position at a startup-up big-data company focused on the philanthropic sector because I’m “too pessimistic”. This company initially sought me out since they don’t have any social sector expertise on staff, a likely requisite to make successful nonprofit software. Our courtship turned sour when I expressed my view that we have a lot more social sector initiatives than evidence that those interventions actually work.
My skepticism that social sector initiatives by and large work was wrongly misconstrued as pessimism that social progress is possible. Skepticism is a critical driver of intellectual curiosity. I spent a pretty penny on two degrees that essentially taught me how to critically assess the divide between rhetoric and results. Indeed, the null hypothesis in a statistical model assumes the intended effect is not present. I guess statisticians are just a bunch of pessimists.
Fundamentally, I believe the company I interviewed with was mirroring the widespread lack of intellectual curiosity that plagues the social sector and impedes real progress. Too many nonprofits are terrified of having their claims of social impact investigated, lest their effects are discovered to be more modest than claimed. And I don’t blame them. The funding community’s emphasis on investing in “what works” has resulted in a proliferation of noise as every nonprofit steadfastly argues their interventions cure everything. It’s no wonder evaluators are seen as Angels of Death.
I generally don’t favor taking cues from the for-profit world, but venture capital and angel investors’ practice of investing in people and teams over ideas is far more conducive to intellectual honesty in product (and social intervention) development. The basic premise of this investment strategy is that initial product ideas are generally wrong, but smart people will investigate, iterate, and innovate.
Compare that philosophy to the social sector, where the expectation is that nonprofits already have the answers, they just need money to scale them up. This assumption is largely incorrect, but by making funding contingent on the perception of effectiveness, the nonprofit sector is incentivized to not question the efficacy of its own work. In this model, continued funding depends on a lack of intellectual curiosity at best, and intellectual dishonesty at worst.
A better alternative is for nonprofits to embrace intellectual curiosity, and to be the first to question their own results. Under this model, nonprofits would invest in their capacity to intelligently probe the effectiveness of their own interventions, by staffing those with the capacity to sift through outcomes data and investing in the growing list of tools that are democratizing evaluation. Of course, this would require a shift in the funding community away from “investing in what works” to more humbly “investigating what works”.
A shift toward intellectual curiosity would create more space for the sector to solicit beneficiary feedback in the design of social interventions, as organizations would no longer be incentivized to defensively “prove” existing approaches work, and instead would be rewarded for proactively evolving practices to achieve better results. It is this very intellectual curiosity that led organizations like GiveDirectly and the Family Independence Initiative to invest in the poor directly, a departure from long-standing anti-poverty practices that the evidence suggests might actually work. It’s a shame that organizations imbued with a mission of experimentation deviate so far from the norm.
I don’t consider it pessimistic to question whether the sector is achieving its intended social impact. To the contrary, it’s rather cynical to set aside what should be the critical question for any nonprofit organization in the name of self-preservation. In order to achieve social progress, the sector needs to expel anti-intellectual policies and actors in favor of a healthy skepticism that questions everything, and is willing to try anything.
Photo Credit: NASA
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