Venture Philanthropy Partners
In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Isaac Castillo, Director of Outcomes, Assessment, and Learning at Venture Philanthropy Partners, where he leads VPP’s approach to data collection, data reporting, and outcome measurement.
Prior to coming to VPP, Isaac served as the Deputy Director for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI). At DCPNI, Isaac led efforts to improve outcomes in the Kenilworth-Parkside community in Ward 7 of the District of Columbia through the strategic coordination of programmatic solutions and research-based strategies. Prior to his time at DCPNI, Isaac served as a Senior Research Scientist at Child Trends where he worked with nonprofits throughout the United States on the development and modification of performance management systems and evaluation designs. In addition, Isaac was also the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) where he led the organization’s evaluation and performance management work.
You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.
Nell: You have spent your career using data to improve the performance of the nonprofits for which you worked. Why do you think performance management is so important for nonprofits? Do you think all nonprofits should pursue performance management? When does it make sense and when doesn’t it?
Isaac: I believe that every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management because they owe it to the clients they serve. Most nonprofits will assume that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives, but in the vast majority of cases they are just guessing. Using some form of performance management will allow every nonprofit organization to confirm this thinking and to identify areas that can and should be improved so that the next cohort of participants can get better services than the last.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges preventing a nonprofit from implementing some form of performance management isn’t a lack of resources, expertise, or time. It is fear. The fear that they will find out that their work isn’t having a positive effect. This fear is what nonprofit leaders need to overcome, not for the benefit of themselves or their organization, but because they owe it to the clients they serve today and the clients they will serve in the future. I believe that every nonprofit should strive to serve tomorrow’s clients better than today’s clients, and one of the only ways to ensure that this happens is the sustained use of performance management.
The type of performance management that each nonprofit should pursue should vary by the size and scope of their work. At a minimum, small nonprofits should be tracking basic demographic and attendance information on their participants, and hopefully at least one meaningful output or outcome. Whether this occurs in a computerized system or in a spiral paper notebook is up to the nonprofit. But it doesn’t have to be costly, and it doesn’t take expertise. It only takes the will and desire to improve as a nonprofit.
Nell: In the nonprofits in which you’ve worked how have you been able to secure resources to fund performance management? What is the case you and your colleagues have made to funders and what do you think it will take to get more funders investing in performance management?
Isaac: Raising funding for performance management work usually takes a mix of several different strategies and approaches for potential and existing funders.
First, I strongly encourage nonprofits to include some percentage (1 to 5 percent – possibly more) of funding in each grant submission or proposal dedicated to supporting performance management and outcome measurement work. By placing this small percentage into each proposal, a nonprofit can begin to raise funds for internal evaluation and performance management activities. It may not seem like a lot, but it can add up, and eventually generate enough funds for a half-time or full-time position to support in-house performance management work.
Second, I also strongly encourage nonprofits to engage in regular ‘funder education’ – where a nonprofit proactively meets with their funders to have ongoing conversations about outcome measurement and evaluation. This allows both the funder and the nonprofit to come to agreement on measurement expectations and to ensure that both groups are focused on the same concepts. I often suggest that the first of these types of meetings focuses on each group’s definitions of three commonly misunderstood terms: outputs, outcomes, and impact.
Finally, I would recommend that the nonprofit and funder have an honest discussion regarding expectations of results and the funding necessary to support the related evaluation work. If a funder is expecting an random control trial (RCT) to be completed to determine ‘impact,’ then the nonprofit should be willing to push the funder to support a large investment to pay for a high quality evaluation. If the funder is only willing to support a small amount for outcome measurement, then the nonprofit should clearly articulate what is possible.
Nell: Ken Berger and Caroline Fiennes recently argued that we may have gone too far by asking nonprofits to produce research about their own outcomes. What’s your response to that argument?
Isaac: I fully support Ken and Caroline in their argument that most nonprofits should stay away from trying to produce impact research. The desire for ‘impact’ is something that has been (and continues to be) pushed unfairly (and without financial support) by the funding community.
I honestly think a lot of confusion in this space comes from inconsistent use and understanding of the term ‘impact’. The term ‘impact’ has a precise definition among researchers but is often used in a much broader context among funders, nonprofits, and the general public. In the research and evaluation world, impact is used to describe the effectiveness of a program while eliminating as many potential confounding factors as possible. That is why the use of random control trials (RCTs) is usually the cornerstone of impact research – RCTs are the easiest way to control for and eliminate confounding factors.
When most non-researchers use the term ‘impact’ however, they are usually just asking if the program or organization works and if it is making a difference for its intended service population. That is a much lower bar to set, and yet it is a critical distinction in this discussion. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ as a researcher, you will need a large amount of resources and expertise to determine ‘impact,’ which usually means completing one or more formal evaluations. If you are thinking about ‘impact’ in the more general sense and less strict way, then pursuing some form of performance management system will allow a nonprofit to determine if their efforts have been successful.
I do think every nonprofit should pursue some form of performance management to ensure that their work is having a positive effect as a complement to existing research that others have done. Relying only on the use of others’ research does not guarantee that a nonprofit will provide effective services and achieve positive outcomes. This type of research is a like a recipe – it shows what has worked in the past and provides a guide for the nonprofit – but a recipe can still be ruined with poor implementation or planning.
Every nonprofit has an obligation to the people they serve (and not to their funders) to ensure that their programming is having a positive effect (or at the very least not causing harm). Without some form of performance management system in place (even one that just uses paper and pencil), a nonprofit will never know if they have strayed too far from the recipe provided by previous research.
I also think there are a growing number of very sophisticated nonprofits that should be using AND producing research on effective programs. Every year, I see more and more nonprofits that hire talented and unbiased researchers dedicated to internal evaluation and outcome measurement work. These individuals are just as talented and unbiased as their colleagues working in traditional research and evaluation organizations. They can, and should, produce original research that can help inform the nonprofit field. The real challenge comes in nonprofit organizations finding the resources to support the hiring and retention of these individuals. Not every nonprofit will have the resources or capacity to hire one or more of these individuals – but those that do should absolutely be trying to produce original outcome and impact research to provide ‘recipes’ for effective programming that nonprofits with fewer resources can use in the future.
Nell: Your former organization, DC Promise Neighborhoods, is part of the national Promise Neighborhoods Initiative launched by the US Department of Education in 2010 and modeled after the famous Harlem Children’s Zone. How successful has this national replication of a successful local model been? Have you been able to replicate outcomes? And what hurdles, if any, have you and other replication sites found?
Isaac: I think that there has been some initial success among the Promise Neighborhoods. Part of the challenge that all the Promise Neighborhoods face is that the Harlem Children’s Zone did not achieve their success overnight. They have been working in Harlem for decades, so it would be unrealistic to believe that the Promise Neighborhoods would be able to create large scale change in a matter of a few years.
However, there are signs of progress across all of the Promise Neighborhoods. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods started to address a few outcomes with the initial round of funding, and these outcomes varied. Some focused on math and reading proficiency for students, some focused on obtaining medical homes for young children, and others sought to increase the amount of healthy food consumed by residents. In DC, we focused on improving school attendance.
I do think that most of the 12 Promise Neighborhood Implementation grantees were able to make progress on the outcomes they identified as initial focus areas. However, the very nature of the work (creating community level change) doesn’t lend itself to the rapid accomplishment of multiple outcomes in a short period of time. Each of the Promise Neighborhoods had to prioritize certain outcomes for their respective communities, and only several years later are they able to claim success and begin to identify the next set of outcomes to be addressed. So while certain outcomes haven’t necessarily been replicated across all the Promise Neighborhoods, that is due to the differences in priorities and community conditions rather than any problem with the model itself.
Photo Credit: Venture Philanthropy Partners
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 this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jeff Raderstrong, founder and editor of UnSectored, an online platform for people interested in developing collaborative efforts to create social change. In addition to the online platform, the UnSectored community uses offline events and activities to identify intersections, facilitate discussions, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and promote cross-sector change efforts. Jeff is also a community engagement consultant and has worked for Venture Philanthropy Partners, among other organizations on the front lines of social innovation.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You and some friends started the UnSectored blog a year ago to encourage the nonprofit, public and private sectors to break down their walls and work together on social change. How has it worked so far? What are you seeing?
Jeff: The blog was a first step in changing the conversation around social change to focus not on individual components—social enterprise, nonprofit, corporation social responsibility, government innovation, etc—but to consider the entire ecosystem. Social change is a complex task and, to us, it seemed silly to have all these conversations separately, with people not really paying attention to what those with similar (or identical) goals were doing.
In that way, the blog has been successful in providing that space. The response we received was way more positive than we were expecting, because our core message is a pretty simple one—that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that everyone should work together. But there had not been a place for discussion around that idea, so it resonated with people.
There’s still a lot more work to do, obviously, and UnSectored can’t do all of it. We are providing the platform for the community that believes in this idea—what’s next is up to the people who join that community.
Nell: Your fellow bloggers at UnSectored are all part of the Millennial generation. Do you think the notion of “unsectoredness” (is that a word?) is a particularly Millennial one?
Jeff: Answer to first question: Yes! You just put it on the internet, so it’s now a word!
Second question: I do not think there is anything inherent about the ideas behind UnSectored that make it explicitly a millennial endeavor. The work on UnSectored has been done primarily by millennials, but I think that’s just a function of the people I reached out to (my peers) rather than who the idea resonates with most. We have gotten response on this from people of all ages and backgrounds—I think it’s a universal idea.
That being said, I do think it’s a relatively new idea, born out of the more collaborative and connected nature of the brave new world we live in. The new tools available to people make it much more easier now than ever before to work together. For millennials, this isn’t “new,” this is the way we were raised. Because of that, we get it a little quicker than others, but I don’t think that makes it “ours” at all.
Nell: In addition to the blog you are also doing UnSectored Talks and Working Group Actions. What are these and what are you hoping they will accomplish?
Jeff: We have four components to UnSectored: Blog, Talks, Actions, Campaigns. The blog is relatively straightforward, as are the Talks: Both are ways to engage with open and intentional conversations around social change. The Talks are offline, the blog is online.
The other two components are trying to leverage the power of the UnSectored community to move from discussion to action. The Actions are the offline, coordinated version of this, and the Campaigns leverage the online platform of UnSectored. By giving people the option to engage in discussion and action, both online and offline, we hope to meet people where they are and get them to engage the best they can.
Nell: How geographic is your movement? Is it growing beyond the D.C. Metro area?
Jeff: It’s centered on DC, but we’ve been talking to people around the country. Because we aren’t funded and rely on volunteer time, it’s hard for us to have events in other places. But, we are looking for creative ways to partner with other organizations around the country. If you have some ideas, let us know!
Nell: Many of your fellow bloggers work for high-profile organizations within the social sector space (Venture Philanthropy Partners, Calvert Foundation, Council on Foundations, etc.). Do you find that your employers buy into the UnSectored idea and if so what are they doing to make it a reality?
Jeff: They definitely do. I think we all get inspiration for UnSectored from our other work. More and more, people at all types of organizations—high profile or not—are beginning to see how working together can produce better outcomes and create more transformative change. Personally, I’ve worked on the Social Innovation Fund initiative from the Obama administration, a great example of “unsectoredness” at work: The federal government partnering with funders and service providers to better leverage resources and encourage innovation. This initiative, which many of your readers are probably familiar with, is a great example of UnSectored’s core principle: That by working together, we can do much more than working alone.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Carol Thompson Cole. Carol is President & CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), a philanthropic investment organization (co-founded by Mario Morino) that helps great leaders build strong, high-performing nonprofit institutions. She has over thirty years of management experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. She served as Special Advisor to President Clinton on the District of Columbia and was the Vice President for Government and Environmental Affairs at RJR Nabisco.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: This year marks Venture Philanthropy Partners’ 10 year anniversary. And in fact, venture philanthropy itself is only a little bit older. How has the concept of venture philanthropy changed since it first came on the scene?
Carol: People began talking about “venture philanthropy” about 11-12 years ago. Back then, it meant many different things, depending on who was speaking. Today, it still means many different things, but those organizations that work within this philanthropic mindset, like Venture Philanthropy Partners, have learned some important lessons along the way and share some common characteristics like a focus on performance, long-term financial commitments, investing in capacity and building infrastructure, and bringing resources in addition to capital to the table, to name a few.
At VPP, we actually moved away from using the term “venture philanthropy” a number of years ago as we realized that our approach was not a strictly “venture” approach. We are much more about blending some of the ways private equity firms approach their financial investments with many of the lessons learned and techniques developed by philanthropists through the years. We usually call ourselves a “philanthropic investment organization,” and we work to maximize all available resources, including capital, time, the skills and experience of our team, and the power of our network, to improve the lives of low-income children and youth in the National Capital Region.
Venture philanthropy arose out of the tech boom in the late 1990s, when many young entrepreneurs making their fortunes online decided to shift their resources into philanthropy. They saw a real opportunity to apply their business and management knowledge to nonprofits to create real, sustainable change for our society. These entrepreneurs decided to take the principles of venture capital that helped them become successful and shift that over into philanthropy.
Of course, the main strategies of venture philanthropy have been used, in some form or another, by grantmakers long before the late 90s. Venture philanthropists focus on high-engagement approaches to their grants, work to build capacity of organizations to scale their programs, and seek measured and proven outcomes as a result of their investment. Above all else, venture philanthropists use high-engagement techniques to bring more than just money to their partnership with nonprofits. Different grantmakers have refined their own ways of implementing these strategies, but they remain at the core of venture philanthropy, even a decade later.
Nell: When venture philanthropy started in the late 1990s it was thought to be a true innovation that could transform the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Has it lived up to those original ideas?
Carol: Venture philanthropy is a true innovation, but the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are large and complicated systems. Venture philanthropy is an effective tool that has helped us deliver strong results for the children and youth in the National Capital Region. VPP is focused on identifying outstanding nonprofit leaders with strong programs and bold ambitions to grow. We give them growth capital to build their infrastructure and scale their organizations through serving more children and youth, by increasing their outcomes and impact, or through influence – making systemic change that ultimately allows for many more lives to be changed. Our first fund has grown to serve an additional 16,000 youth.
Clearly, venture philanthropy has worked for us, but it is not the only answer for the nonprofit sector. It can be a useful tool to deliver results, but creating those results is more important than the way those results are created.
Nell: Venture philanthropy was in many ways the precursor to what has now become the social innovation movement. How do you think venture philanthropy fits into these new worlds of social investing, for-profit social entrepreneurship, and other areas where the public, private and nonprofit sectors are converging?
Carol: Again, venture philanthropy is a tool to be deployed in grantmaking. At VPP, we are focused on bringing a high-engagement model to our nonprofit partners and delivering results for the children and youth of the region. Social investing, social entrepreneurship, and other innovations coming out of the convergence of sectors are examples of similar tools to drive results. At the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference in March, where I spoke along side Paul Carttar of the Social Innovation Fund, there was a lot of discussion about what type of organizational structure is best to create social change and what type of funding an organization should seek out to achieve its mission. What became clear is that people need to focus on goals and strategy, not methods. Venture philanthropy complements programmatic sources of funding because it can help some organizations scale very effectively to help those who need it.
Nell: The federal government took a step into the world of social innovation last year with the Social Innovation Fund, which was based largely on the venture philanthropy model. What do you think of the SIF and how do you see government’s role (at both the local and federal levels) evolving from this?
Carol: VPP is a member of the inaugural portfolio of the Social Innovation Fund, and we are honored to be included among the other intermediary funders. We applied to SIF because the challenges in our community are too big and complex to be met by a single funder, a single nonprofit, or a single sector. What we need now is a “network” of nonprofits, funders, corporations, local governments, and the federal government working together to solve our most intractable problems.
SIF represents the first step towards that new form of collaboration. Speaking at the Harvard conference, Paul Carttar said that SIF was about much more than money, and it would be a success if the public-private partnership model was adopted by others across the country. In these lean times for funding, it is important that we work together to encourage social innovation where it is needed. SIF, as well as the other public-private innovations launched by the Obama administration, like Investing in Innovation and Race to the Top, are developments that should be encouraged. If we can continue to push local and federal government to take on this role as collaborator, we will be able to achieve much higher levels of impact in our communities.
Even the largest philanthropic investments are dwarfed by public funding and are often deeply effected by availability of public funding as well as how and when it is allocated. Not every partnership needs to be as formal as SIF, but I would urge all philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to look for ways to seek alignment with local, state, and federal government efforts.
Nell: What’s next for venture philanthropy? Where does it go from here? How do you continue to reinvigorate or adapt the model?
Carol: I strongly believe that SIF represents the next step for VPP, and for all of venture philanthropy. We feel our model of philanthropy works and our first investments were successful, but we also feel like there is potential to dramatically improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and youth in our regions through intense and intentional collaboration. Because of this, we applied to SIF.
Our SIF initiative, youthCONNECT, represents the next phase of our work. Instead of single investments, we are investing in a network of high-performing nonprofits that provide a number of different services to young people from low-income families to help them thrive in adulthood. All the nonprofits in the network share the goal of bringing education, job training, and social services to at least 20,000 low-income youth, ages 14-24, in our region over 5 years. As we demonstrate success, this approach can be replicated or adapted by others around the region and the country. We will still make high-impact, long-term investments in single organizations, but we are exploring the transformative power of a network approach.
It is too early to tell the effectiveness of youthCONNECT and SIF, but I think these developments are pushing us into the next generation of high-engagement philanthropy. At VPP, we are committed to evaluation, sharing, and transparency so we can learn from each other as we work in these unexplored areas.
Nell: One of the criticisms of venture philanthropy is that it is only accessible to the largest and most successful of nonprofits. Do you see smaller nonprofits being able to access the ideas of growth capital? And if so, how will this evolve?
Carol: VPP focuses on organizations with strong leaders that deliver results. We have historically focused on organizations with budgets of $3-$50 million, but in our youthCONNECT initiative we have invested in organizations that fall below that monetary requirement but still have a proven track record in the area. Investing in smaller organizations is a different approach than some venture philanthropists have used, but these smaller nonprofits should have opportunities to access growth capital. What is most important to VPP is that an organization, regardless of size, can deliver lasting and meaningful results for children and youth in our region. Change in the lives of those who need it most will always remain our priority.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Mario Morino. Mario is co-founder and chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, one of the oldest venture philanthropy funds, and chairman of the Morino Institute, a nonprofit focused on technology for social change. His career spans more than 45 years as entrepreneur, technologist, and civic and business leader. He also recently wrote Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, which I recently reviewed here on the blog.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In your book Leap of Reason, you tell the leaders of the nonprofit sector that they need to make a fundamental shift in how they conduct business. Have you gotten any push back from nonprofits or philanthropists? Or has all of the response to the book been positive?
Mario: We are pushing for some hard changes, so we expected some hard reactions. But to our surprise, the response from nonprofit, for-profit, and public-sector leaders alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
We’ve asked ourselves why we’re not getting more push back. There are probably several factors at work. For one thing, the people who have taken the time to read the book are probably those who are more inclined to be receptive to this message. Those who are natural critics—for instance, those who believe mission and metrics are mutually exclusive or that discipline inhibits charismatic, entrepreneurial leadership—may not have read it. And so that shoe may drop at some point. The more we push beyond those already singing in the choir, the more constructive push back we’ll get.
I’d like to think that another factor is the way we presented the case. We made a forceful case, but we weren’t strident in our tone. We have a strong appreciation for the reasons why these management approaches have not been more widely adopted in the social sector. We sought to focus on what to do versus placing blame.
Nell: Do you think the majority of nonprofits will adopt an outcomes-management approach? And if so, when? What will be the tipping point?
Mario: Even when you take into account all of the work on outcomes, accountability, and mission-effectiveness over the past 15+ years, only a small slice of nonprofits (or government agencies, for that matter) have adopted an outcomes-management approach. So I fear that we’re in for only incremental adoption, unless our sector finds a way to seize the opportunity in this era of scarcity. This funding crisis can enervate or energize us. I really hope it’s the latter. In other words, I really hope this crisis will lead people to look much harder at what they do and how they can do it more efficiently and effectively. I hope it will cause them to go beyond incremental improvement and fine-tuning to rework fundamentally what it is they do.
Nell: It seems that this is a charge you are very much willing to lead. Beyond writing the book, what are you doing to lead the effort to create this fundamental shift in the nonprofit sector?
Mario: I would certainly like to join others in advancing this shift in the social sector and even lead in some areas. But I don’t think I’ve earned the stature to be the leader of a movement of this type. Even with 15+ years in the social sector, some still see me as a newbie!
As I said in the book, to help kick things off I would welcome helping to convene a select group of early adopters who have “been there and done that” and those most instrumental in helping them. I hope that a collective leadership will emerge and offer the beginning of an effort that could put our sector on a different and much more rapid trajectory.
As others began to follow their example, the network effect might well start to take hold. Imagine universities incorporating the outcomes-management mindset and discipline into nonprofit leadership curricula. Imagine funders offering outcomes-management grants to nonprofit leaders who show a real predisposition to use information well, and hiring seasoned staff members who have the expertise to provide strategic counsel and assistance to grantees. Imagine nonprofit leaders and staff joining together in peer-learning networks to share, learn, and push one another. Imagine government funders encouraging and rewarding successful outcomes management through new types of contracts and awards. A cadre of leaders and doers could help spark all of these things—and in doing so, spark a real movement.
Nell: What role can and should philanthropists, both foundations and individual donors, play in the effort to shift the nonprofit sector toward an outcomes approach?
Mario: Funders generally don’t provide the kind of financial support and strategic assistance that nonprofits need to make the leap to the outcomes-management discipline. While a lack of funding is by no means the only barrier, I know many nonprofit leaders who would take up the challenge in a heartbeat if funding, advice, and encouragement were available. The hard truth is that far too many funders have been conditioned to insist that every dollar “support the cause” through funding for programs. They don’t want “overhead” to dilute their grants.
To make the leap to outcomes management, nonprofits need creative funders, like the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, that are willing to help them manage smarter through greater use of information on performance and impact—rather than forcing them to meet myriad evaluation and reporting requirements that too often do little to help the organization learn and improve. They need funders who understand that making the leap requires more than program funding, and more than the typical “capacity-building” grant. They need funders who are willing to make multi-year investments and offer strategic assistance to help nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
Nell: What does an outcomes approach look like for a social service nonprofit with an annual budget of $100,000? How does this approach apply across the sector?
Mario: It’s hard to adopt this approach if you’re in an organization that small. It would be folly to expect a nonprofit with that budget to have formal outcomes systems, metrics, and the like. That said, I’ve never thought quality and “goodness” were functions of size. Shouldn’t every nonprofit, regardless of its size and infrastructure, have a clear sense of what it’s trying to accomplish, a thoughtful strategy for how it’s going to do so, and some sense of how it will know if it gets there? It’s perfectly understandable that such a small organization may never have crafted a “theory of change” in a formal way, but the organization’s leader needs to have this framework embedded in his or her mind. If not, what’s the rationale for asking others to contribute time and money to support the nonprofit’s work? What’s the basis for asking intended beneficiaries to put faith and trust in the nonprofit’s services?
Nell: What do you think will happen to nonprofit organizations that don’t adopt a managing to outcomes approach? What does the future look like for them?
Mario: They will continue on as they have—at least for a while.
The fiasco with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute is a cautionary tale. Mortenson had a great story, and for a while his donors took it on faith that his organization was delivering on his grand promises in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, it appears the organization turned out to be better at fattening Mortenson’s book royalties than building quality programs.
I don’t mean to suggest that all nonprofits are like Mortenson’s! Far from it. But I do mean to suggest that in an era of scarcity, there will be more pressure on nonprofits to show that they are delivering on their promises. More public and private funders will finally look under the hood and ensure things are working well.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Susan Comfort from KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to saving play and building community engagement. KaBOOM! helps communities across the country build playgrounds for their neighborhoods. As the VP for Philanthropy at KaBOOM!, Susan has a unique perspective on the next generation of sustainable philanthropic support for nonprofits. Before KaBOOM! Susan worked for environmental groups like EWG and 1% for the Planet. KaBOOM! is a darling of the social innovation world because they have figured out how to scale their idea (a playground within walking distance of every kid) in a financially sustainable way.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: How is it fundraising two years into a recession? Have you found that your approach has had to change because of the recession? If so, in what ways?
Susan: The recession brings good and bad news for fundraising. The good news is, if you are a nonprofit that delivers results, you will stand out to donors for getting great bang for their limited bucks. KaBOOM! has made its reputation this way, not only delivering a tangible, needed asset to an underserved community, but doing it efficiently, in a way that brings people together in the short- and long-term.
The bad news is, as we work to diversify our revenues beyond corporate-funded-playgrounds, breaking into the foundation community during a recession is challenging. Foundations, coping with reduced payouts, can’t fund all their previous grantees, much less new ones. Plus, “play” is regrettably not yet understood by foundations as something that fits their guidelines, even though lack of play is harming kids intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally, and is linked to so many other pressing issues.
KaBOOM! launched its “Going to Scale” plan just before the bottom dropped out of the market, so our approach continues to be developing our organization and program offerings beyond building playgrounds. We aim to achieve our vision of a great place to play for every child in America, but we can’t build every play space ourselves!
Nell: KaBOOM! has grown tremendously since it was founded in 1995. What do you think enables some nonprofits to grow their solution significantly while others can’t? What are the characteristics, if there are any, of a growth-oriented nonprofit?
Susan: One characteristic is strategy. If you engage in direct service, you can always find more people to serve…then organizational growth is about funding and efficiency. If you engage in lobbying Members of Congress, however, you will have a limited number of people to lobby, with a limited number of opportunities…so your organizational growth is about the message (did it resonate? And who was the messenger?), or effectiveness (did you win?) or scope (where does this get addressed next—in state houses or internationally?).
Another characteristic of growth is your Theory of Change. First you have to define the problem, so you can rally around a collective cause. The problem we aim to address is the declining health of both children AND communities. At KaBOOM! we structure programs that lead to Achievable Wins, which in turn lead to what we call “Cascading Steps of Leadership”. The KaBOOM! model of community-built playgrounds allows our project managers to match up funders and nonprofits, then facilitate a 10-week process starting with a kid-led Design Day and ending with Build Day. But it doesn’t end there…
Our project managers keep in touch after the big Build Day with 1-week, 1-month and 6-month follow-up calls, each designed to propel the planning committee to take on another defined problem in their community, and take steps to achieve more “wins” for themselves. In essence, this model allows us to work in any part of the country, so KaBOOM! can grow and serve any number of communities. If your Theory of Change is focused on one community, as a traditional community organizer’s would be, you might not grow beyond that community – nor should you – but your roots there will be much deeper than ours, by design, ever will be.
Nell: You have raised a good bit of growth capital to achieve this growth. Beyond the capital you’ve raised from venture philanthropy funds, that are all about growth capital, how have you convinced other funders, who were maybe not as versed in the ideas of growth capital, to fund growth as opposed to just direct programs?
Susan: The only venture philanthropy funding that KaBOOM! has received is from the Omidyar Network, and we are incredibly grateful for their $12 million investment over 7 years. It gave us a long runway to get our engine revved up for take-off, in this case open-sourcing over a decade’s worth of playground-building expertise so that Do-It-Yourself activists could freely download what we’ve figured out and apply it to their own communities (per our Going To Scale plan).
At the same time, we started educating our closest friends in the corporate community about our other organizational needs, and some were willing (even in a recession!) to fund us beyond playground builds. So we started a “National Partner” program where we asked companies to build multiple playgrounds annually, plus contribute six figures in general support. Today, our national partners are Dr Pepper Snapple, Foresters, Kraft and MetLife.
And of course — near and dear to my heart — we also started a Philanthropy program (which I direct). Our goal is to engage foundations and individuals to invest in KaBOOM!, both its online programs and its organizational growth. With regional foundations, for example, we show what playgrounds we’ve built in their area thus far, and request support for our Playful City USA program. If play can be institutionalized in mayor’s offices and with local activists, so much more will be accomplished than we could have done on our own.
With individuals, it’s human nature to want to fund something very specific and/or tangible, so the growth fundraising is certainly a challenge. But it’s also human nature to extrapolate meaning from a single story, so when a donor sees how one child’s family benefits from a fantastic play space, they understand how millions of children and families would benefit just the same. We’ve had individuals support playground builds…we even have a wedding build lined up in Connecticut in June 2012…but we are also asking people to support the broader cause of play.
Nell: KaBOOM! recently took a fascinating spin on growing to scale by realizing the only way they were going to get to every area that needed a playground was to make playground plans downloadable on your website. That has the potential to undermine your financial model since you won’t receive any money for those playgrounds built. How do you balance the desire to reach everyone with the need to sustain a large organization?
Susan: Well, it’s a challenge, and honestly, we haven’t figured out the answer yet. But we have a few irons in the fire in addition to some of the foundation efforts I described.
We are hoping individuals will “Play it forward” to KaBOOM! after they’ve served as playground build volunteers, or Do-It-Yourselfers, or recess advocates. We are also figuring out the best way to help others raise money for their playground projects using a platform similar to Donors Choose or GlobalGiving, where donors give a small percentage “tip” to help with operating costs. Of course, we are also reaching out to high-net-worth individuals who have the potential to underwrite our mission.
In addition to our individual and foundation outreach, we are developing less-traditional revenue streams. Imagination Playground is a unique LLC, formed between KaBOOM! and the non-profit arm of David Rockwell’s architecture firm. Once that enterprise begins making money (we’re not there yet) KaBOOM! will get half of the proceeds. Another new revenue streams is KaBOOM! founder Darell Hammond, who is contributing all author proceeds from his new book, (an Amazon best-seller) How One Man Built a Movement to Save Play, to the organization. Back in the day, we also used to scoop ice cream down at the Ben & Jerry’s on Free Cone Day, which eventually got us a limited-run ice cream flavor featuring white-chocolate-coated pop rocks…called KaBerry KaBOOM! Too bad that’s in the Flavor Graveyard now.
Nell: What is your sense of how philanthropy is evolving in terms of the distinction between buying services and building organizations? Do you think more philanthropists are understanding this distinction and stepping up to fund building organizations? And what will encourage more to do so?
Susan: Some of the forward-thinking philanthropists are certainly making this distinction. Venture Philanthropy Partners. The Social Innovation Fund. Omidyar Network. Skoll Foundation. These tend to fund “social entrepreneurs” which are not just business-like non-profits. Jim Collins says “We must reject the idea.. well-intentioned, but dead wrong.. that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses…like most of anything else in life…fall somewhere between mediocre and good.”
Jim Collins has many fans at KaBOOM! – in fact, every staff member receives on their first day his Good to Great in the Social Sector so that we can embrace the universal principles of being GREAT.
But the reality is, the traditional KaBOOM! funding model sits squarely in the fee-for-service column, and corporate-funded playgrounds still dominate our budget. To fund everything else, we are making the transition away from venture philanthropy (Omidyar) toward a diversified organizational funding model (foundations + individuals).
Both entities are still tempted to fund a particular geographic area, or program area. And that’s okay—it’s good work.
But so many organizations are running around chasing 1-year grants for a program, for which quarterly reports are due, that you need a permanent development staff to keep track of all those proposals and reports and such. Which keeps people like me employed, but it’s not great for all of our social change movements who are spending time chasing money when they could be growing their organizations and serving the public more efficiently.
To download the 27-page Financing Not Fundraising e-book, click here.
Despite my frustration in an earlier post about this year’s Social Capital Markets Conference inability to fully integrate philanthropic and government capital into the discussion, I was reminded by a friend that we have actually come a long way in three short years. A keynoter at the first SoCap conference in 2008 noted that “we aren’t here to talk about nonprofits.” The fact is that just two years later not only were nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders present in large numbers at the conference, but they had their own track. It was a huge step forward to have a devoted track focusing on the philanthropic capital market with Sean Stannard-Stockton at its head this year. The track brought some great work to light and started some important conversations.
In the spirit of continuing and expanding that conversation, here are the conversations/sessions I’d like to see at SoCap 2011:
- More case studies like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland and the Evergreen Lodge in Yosemite (not related) that demonstrate innovative collaborations of capital across the philanthropic, government and private sectors
- A working session that looks to compare/combine the nonprofit rating systems and GIIRS (Global Impact Investing Rating System)
- Case studies of nonprofits who have crafted a growth or capacity capital campaign to unlock philanthropic capital for scale and change
- A discussion about venture philanthropy. New Profit, Venture Philanthropy Partners and others pioneered the nonprofit capital space. Where are they now, what have they learned, and what are they doing to revamp the venture philanthropy model?
- An update on the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), what they’ve learned, what the government’s plans are to revamp and scale it.
- Beyond SIF, examples of what local, state and federal governments are doing to partner with philanthropists to expand capital for social entrepreneurs. Council of Foundation’s Public/Philanthropic Partnership is a place to start.
- Stacked deals involving philanthropic and private capital are very tricky to create, as Julie Sunderland and others have argued, but what can we do or develop to make this less difficult? What sorts of terms are people playing around with? What’s working and what isn’t and how can we evolve this?
- Donor-Advised Funds hold tremendous opportunity to unlock philanthropic capital, but are underused currently. What can we do to unlock that potential?
- Where do community foundations fit into all of this? Often the nexus of a city’s philanthropic activity, they have been slow to climb aboard the social capital market train. How can we unlock this potential capital for social impact?
- Discussions about how we educate philanthropists about the need for capacity and growth capital in the nonprofit world. How do we make more philanthropists builders instead of buyers?
- How do we get more foundations to use Program Related Investments and Mission Related Investments?
SoCap10 did a great job of starting the conversation, now I’d like to see that conversation move to the tactical. Let’s create new structures, incentives, partnerships, tools to unlock philanthropic and government capital for social impact.
What do you want to see at SoCap11? Add to the list in the comments.
Photo Credit: paratiger
My post argued that the $50 million federal Social Innovation Fund is only one small piece of the capital the nonprofit sector needs. The fund will help the top nonprofit organizations, but will not remedy the lack of capital available to the smaller, less sophisticated nonprofits that make up the majority (80%) of the sector. Sean rightly pointed out that like the business sector, the vast majority of nonprofits are small, and as we have done with businesses, we need to create different expectations for different kinds of nonprofits. I would take Sean’s comments even further and argue that we actually need to create a similar ecosystem of funding and expertise for the nonprofit sector, as we have done for businesses.
One thing I think that people need to keep in mind when they point to how many nonprofits are small is that the same is true in business. While good revenue numbers are hard to find, did you know that 73% of for-profits have less than 10 employees and 54% have less than 4 employees? It seems to me that as a field we need to do a better job of segmenting the nonprofit market and having very different expectations for nonprofits which are “small businesses” vs those that are “public companies.”
Sean makes a critical point. The vast nonprofit sector is often lumped together as one. When in reality, the sector is incredibly diverse. And although over the past 10 years there have been some innovative strides made in providing capital, expertise, and other resources to the top 20% of the nonprofit sector (such as venture philanthropy funds like New Profit and Venture Philanthropy Partners and management expertise from consulting companies like Monitor and Bridgespan) the fact remains that the “bottom” 80% of the nonprofit sector is still very much alone.
This is one of the reasons I started Social Velocity. I saw a real hole in the marketplace in terms of capital and management expertise to the bottom 80% of the nonprofit market. A $500,000 nonprofit organization can’t engage a Monitor or Bridgespan group, and a venture philanthropy fund wouldn’t be interested in scaling them since no one will fund evaluation to prove their results. These organizations are stuck within the vicious starvation cycle and cannot get out.
We need to do a better job, as Sean says, of segmenting the nonprofit sector and creating appropriate expectations for those different segments, but we need to go much further. We have to create an ecosystem of expertise and funding for the smaller, less sophisticated segments of the sector, which includes:
- Educating smaller, less sophisticated philanthropists that creating solutions requires funding for less sexy things like capacity, organization building, evaluation
- Providing significant capacity capital to build out revenue functions, attract and retain top talent, articulate a value add, message effectively
- Supplying growth capital to nonprofits who have a great solution and the desire to scale
- Creating realistic and cost-effective evaluation tools so that smaller organizations can prove their impact along with the big guys
- Securing management expertise to help smaller nonprofits create strategic and growth plans, articulate their impact and value add to potential investors, develop comprehensive financial strategies, etc.
I think it’s fabulous that there is a growing understanding that nonprofits can’t do it alone anymore. And I’m so pleased to see new funding vehicles like the Social Innovation Fund that are helping to take social innovation to the next level. But let’s not forget that there are many other innovative nonprofit organizations that will never catch the eye of the Social Innovation Fund, or their funding and consulting counterparts.
Over the past 200+ years America has established a fairly advanced ecosystem that supports (albeit not perfectly) the growth and success of entrepreneurs at every stage of the game. We are starting to recognize the need for a similar ecosystem in the nonprofit sector. But there is still much work to be done. Let’s not forget the smaller, less sophisticated nonprofits that may have tremendous solutions to contribute, but who just can’t get past the many hurdles in their way.