8,000 Words Worth More than a Picture


Leap of Reason Update: May 2014

Over the past few months, more than 50 top nonprofit thought leaders and practitioners convened by the Leap of Reason team have been working hard to produce a much-needed definition of the term “high-performance organization.” We hope our common—but not least-common-denominator—definition will provide a solid foundation for subsequent efforts to design ways to make high performance the norm in the social and public sectors.

As proud as we are of the definition that’s emerging from the minds and experiences of these leaders, we think the definition of “high performance” may be captured as well or better by Paul Tough in his compelling New York Times Magazine article “Who Gets to Graduate?” This is not a case of a picture being worth a thousand words—given that Tough’s article is 8,000 words and our definition will be much shorter. But Tough’s profile of two innovative professors at the University of Texas at Austin is a compelling way to understand how leaders can unlock answers to hard problems when they combine good data with great insights and judgment.

Like most American colleges and universities, UT Austin is eager to increase graduation rates. More than half of American students who attend higher education don’t earn a degree after six years. And, in Tough’s words, “whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor—how much money his or her parents make…. Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.”

Tough profiles the professors’ efforts to dramatically improve the odds for low-income students and increase the school’s graduation rate from 52 percent to 70 percent. Their performance-driven approaches are comprehensive and creative—from setting up a Nate Silver-esque unit to mine data to providing powerful leadership experiences for the students at greatest risk of dropping out. The most intriguing approach involves a one-time, 45-minute intervention given to students online as part of their pre-orientation. The intervention, designed to inoculate students from the ill effects of their inevitable doubts about whether they belong and can hack college-level work, was shown in randomized controlled trials to cut in half the credit-completion gap between low-income and advantaged students in their freshman year.

Tough concludes that UT Austin is helping to demonstrate “that with the right support, both academic and psychological, these students can actually graduate at high rates from an elite university.” We think UT Austin is also demonstrating that leaders, even those operating within traditional institutions, can build an infectious performance culture that produces continuous learning, smart investments, and great results.

And now let’s turn to updates from around the Leap of Reason Community.

  • Last week, our colleagues on the Venture Philanthropy Partners team published the latest installment in their series of learning-rich case studies on their youthCONNECT initiative, a partnership with the federal Social Innovation Fund. The report details youthCONNECT’s first two years of efforts to knit six high-performing nonprofits together to become more than the sum of their good parts. We are just beginning to see how the six agencies are achieving better outcomes for the young people they serve as a result of the youthCONNECT collaboration; its full results will take years to unfold. But from today’s vantage point, it appears that youthCONNECT is a great illustration of the African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.
  • We received the following good news from the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy: “Congress has enacted an important new evidence-based initiative in the Food Stamps program: $200 million to fund, and rigorously evaluate, state pilot projects that provide employment and training services to program participants. Based on a concept originally proposed by House Republicans, this initiative seeks to increase the workforce participation of Food Stamps participants and reduce their reliance on public assistance.”
  • Of course governments can also put up barriers to high performance. For a litany of woes, check out Toward Common Sense Contracting: What Taxpayers Deserve, from the National Council of Nonprofits. The report, which builds on research by Elizabeth Boris and colleagues at Urban Institute, documents billions of dollars in unnecessary costs from wasteful government-contracting practices. For example, governments often fail to pay nonprofits for the full cost of delivering services; insist on Byzantine application and reporting processes; and unilaterally change contract terms and conditions mid-stream.
  • Kudos to Monisha Kapila for her recent SSIR blog post “The Business Case for Investing in Talent.” Kapila points to a series of examples of organizations that see a clear link between talent development and results. For example, she cites a McKinsey study on Boys and Girls Clubs of America comparing the performance of local affiliates against a control group. The study found that on one measure alone—revenue increases—the return on investment was at least four dollars for every dollar spent on the talent development. She also cites the good work of our friend and colleague Dan Cardinali, the CEO of Communities in Schools, who has made visionary investments in talent over the years.
  • AchieveMission CEO James Shepard, Jr. built on these same themes in his SSIR blog post “Leadership Development: Five Things All Nonprofits Should Know.” He points to a wealth of additional studies demonstrating the return on investment for talent development. And he argues that financial ROI is not the main reason to invest in talent: “Investing in leadership development [is] how you ensure that your organization achieves its potential impact.” He ends the piece with good advice on how you can make big improvements for free.
  • PerformWell has just added to its treasure trove of free outcomes and indicators for those developing performance management systems. The newest content is for those who deliver financial-capability programs.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:


Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is Chairman of the Morino Institute, Co-Founder and Founding Chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

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