Leap of Reason: Fighting Poverty with Head and Heart
For the entire 18 years I۪’ve been working full-time in the social sector, a problem has been literally keeping me up at night.
Despitea passion for achieving a mission, most nonprofits do not have the benefit ofgood information and tools to determine where they۪re headed, chart a logicalcourse, and course-correct when they۪re off. Only a fortunate few have areliable way to know whether they۪re doing meaningful, measurable good forthose they serve.
Theproblem is not new, but it is growing in urgency.
Oureconomy has taken a broadside hit. Congress will enact major cuts in the realamount of discretionary spending, the lifeblood of many nonprofits helpinglow-income families. In a cruel irony, these cuts will not only reduce thesupply of funding for many of the services that nonprofits provide, but theywill also dramatically increase the demand for these services.
Themagnitude of the combined hit will require organizations to literally reinventthemselves. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Carol Twigg, president and CEO ofthe National Center for Academic Transformation, who concludes, “We will haveto produce significantly better outcomes at a declining per-unit cost ofproducing these outcomes, while demand for our services will be increasing.”
Inshort, we need to do more with less. To get there, we need to be much clearerabout our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, morerigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, and morecapable of quickly adapting and improvingall with an unrelenting focus andpassion for improving lives.
Thegood news is that some nonprofit leaders are already doing these things in waysthat would knock your socks off. In the book Leap of Reason:Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, my co-authorsand I profiled some of the innovative organizations that have embracedcontinuous collection and use of information for guiding the management oftheir organization, including the Latin AmericanYouth Center,Friendship PublicCharter School,and Year Up.
Sincethe book۪s release, I۪ve had the honor of visiting a series of stellarorganizations working in poor communities in other parts of the nation,including the StrivePartnership(based in Cincinnati), Youth Villages (based inTennessee), Roca (based in Massachusetts), and Congreso (based in Philadelphia). The leaders ofall of these organizations have embraced rigorous information collection anduse not because a funder said they had to do so. They see it as integral toensuring material, measurable, and sustainable good for those they serve.
There۪sanother common denominator among these innovatorsthey all have an eerilysimilar story about coming to the realization that what they were doing wasn۪tworking well enough.
Inthe early 1990s, Youth Villages (YV) CEO Pat Lawler kept hearingthrough the grapevine about young people who seemed to be on a good path afterdischarge from YV۪s residential treatment facilities and yet had ended up inprison or in other forms of crisis. This prompted Pat to start collecting moreinformation to find out what was really happening to those kids. The resultswere disappointing at best.
Insteadof hiding the bad news from stakeholders, Pat and his team openly acknowledgedthe shortcomings and then spent several tough years reengineering the entireprogram model. Today, data collection is part of the DNA of the entireorganization. YV tracks its clients۪ outcomes six, 12, and 24 months afterdischarge, feeding continual improvements in the program model. When you talkto Pat, you see that he is not fixated on data and measurement per se. To him it۪s simply aprecondition for knowing if his long hours are paying off for the young peoplehe servesand how he and his team can keep getting better over time.
Unfortunately,these organizations are outliers. The vast majority of nonprofits are managingon good intentions rather than good information.
We funders bear a lot of the blame. We generally don’t provide the kind of financial support that nonprofits need in order to use information well and make the leap to rigorous management. In the name of “measurement” and “accountability,” we foist unfunded, often simplistic, self-serving mandates on our grantees—rather than helping them define, create, and use the information they need to be disciplined managers.
Nonprofits need creative funders willing to think big with them—not just pester them for more information on results. They need funders who are willing to make multi-year investments and provide strategic assistance to help nonprofit leaders strengthen their management muscle and rigor.
In this era of scarcity, it’s no longer good enough to make the case that we’re addressing real needs. We need to prove that we’re making a real difference.
Mario Morino, a former software entrepreneur, is the chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, based in Washington, DC. He is the author of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity (2011), which is available for free download at leapofreason.org.