Are We Solving Yesterday’s Problems?


We’ve got a bee in the bonnets covering our balding pates.

Some of the things we read about evaluation, performance measurement, and high performance appear to be too grounded in past experience and not lifted by the possibilities of the future. In other words, we worry that some big brains are missing possibilities inherent in our new era of big data. Yes, we have to walk before we can run. But to avoid majoring on “yesterday’s problems,” we all need to observe and absorb how new technology for collecting, analyzing, and applying information can and will influence our sector in the coming years.

Consider this excerpt from Our Year of Learning About the E-Learning Revolution, a brief report we will publish within the next month: “We are ‘rapidly moving to a point where what you know is less relevant than how you learn and how fast you can adapt how you learn over time,’ in the words of Mu Sigma CEO Dhiraj C. Rajaram. While the media has widely reported significant disruption in our education sector, particularly higher education, Rajaram’s forecast puts front and center the potential of e-learning to fundamentally change the way we deliver, process, and transfer knowledge across all sectors of our economy.”

For example, imagine how internal assessment, course correction, and continuous improvement will change as immediate feedback loops become commonplace. Khan Academy understands this reality. “Chief Operating Officer Shantanu Sinha says they’re gathering massive amounts of data, not just from American classrooms, but from every Khan Academy user around the world,” in the words of neurosurgeon and journalist Sanjay Gupta on 60 Minutes. “It’s a gold mine on how to understand … what paths through learning are most effective,” according to Sinha. Khan Academy founder Sal Kahn adds, “We can start fine tuning things the way that Amazon might fine tune the button to help you buy that book or find the book that you want, or Netflix says what’s the right movie for you? We now get to do [that] with education.”

Why can’t we have a social-service version of Yelp, which with one click would give anyone a list of the human service providers and other social-service resources in their immediate area, with user ratings on the quality of service? What if a youth worker could download in real time a brief video with possible interventions for a sensitive or volatile situation happening in a home or neighborhood? That vision doesn’t seem too far from reality when you see the videos from digitalGREEN, which are helping families in rural communities gain real-time, practical knowledge about farming, health, and other important issues.

Ironically, those of us who have been plowing these fields the longest are often the last to see or understand the implications of big changes underway. So while we stay focused on our core work, let’s take off the blinders and bonnets. Let’s keep our eyes peeled to the possibilities of this data-transformation phenomenon and factor it into our thinking about how to raise performance in our sector.

And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • Given the political gridlock in the Nation’s Capital, we have been skeptical about the prospects for movement toward evidence-based approaches at the federal government. But lo and behold, we’ve seen some very encouraging progress in recent weeks. The FY 2014 omnibus spending bill, which President Obama signed into law last Friday, contains a host of big wins for those of us who care about building and using evidence to make key spending decisions. The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which worked closely with Results for America and others in advocating for a focus on what works, provided this clear summary of the key provisions: “The bill provides an $86 million (24%) increase in funding for the ‘tiered evidence’ programs in the federal agencies. Such programs make building and using rigorous evidence of effectiveness a central criterion in the grant selection process…. This funding increase includes establishment of a new tiered-evidence program (‘First in the World’) in postsecondary education at the Department of Education. The bill also includes a new 0.5% evaluation set-aside at the Department of Labor, which we estimate will generate approximately $50 million in additional funding for program evaluation efforts, and a related provision at the Department of Education that we estimate will generate about $12 million.”
  • Other big wins in the FY 2014 omnibus spending bill include: a 33% increase in funding for the Social Innovation Fund; new resources for Pay for Success experiments at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Department of Justice; and authority to launch 10 new “Performance Partnership Pilots” focused on improving outcomes for disconnected youth.
  • The President’s Promise Zone initiative—focused on creating jobs, increasing economic security, expanding educational opportunities, increasing access to affordable housing, and improving public safety—looks like it could become another big federal win. The President selected San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to be the first cohort of Promise Zones because “they’re holding themselves accountable by delivering measurable results. We don’t fund things, we don’t start projects just for the sake of starting them. They’ve got to work. If they don’t work we should try something else.” In the next three years, the President will designate another 25 Promise Zones that have good evidence of effectiveness. Congratulations to Results for America for all that it did to put evidence and results at the center of this initiative.
  • In Leap of Reason, we praised the Hudson Institute’s Bill Schambra for speaking truth to powerful foundations about their bureaucratic requirements and “lack of serious purpose.” A few weeks ago, Schambra published another essay, “The Tyranny of Success: Nonprofits and Metrics,” that lands powerful punches. While we take issue with some of his characterizations (and, in some cases, caricatures) of those of us who believe that effective management requires effective measurement, he provides a valuable reminder that dumbed-down, oversimplified measurement is worse than no measurement at all.
  • Like many others, we’re fans of the peripatetic, empathetic New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. In Kristof’s January 8 column on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, he aligns himself fully with the “what works” movement. “The premise of so much of today’s opposition to food stamps and other benefits—that government assistance inevitably fails—is just wrong,” he writes. “We increasingly have first-rate research—randomized controlled trials, testing antipoverty programs as rigorously as if they were pharmaceuticals—that give us solid evidence of what works or doesn’t. So let’s drop the bombast and look at the evidence.”
  • We recommend Markets for Good’s Making Sense of Data and Information in the Social Sector, a new eBook available for free download. The eBook is a compilation of some of the best posts from the past 15 months on the topic of how to improve the system for generating, sharing, and acting upon data and information in the social sector. The eBook features the writings of many who have had a real influence on our thinking, including Daniel Ben-Horin, Beth Kanter, Phil Buchanan, Lucy Bernholz, Buzz Schmidt, Ben Hecht, and Bridget Laird.
  • In an interview with Social Velocity’s Nell Edgington, outgoing St. Luke’s Foundation President and CEO (and motorcycle maven) Denise Zeman makes a compelling case for why funders should support the overall performance—not just the services—of their grantees: “The Foundation’s role is not to DO the work…our job is to support those who DO,” she says. “Unless we are willing to provide sufficient support to enable our grantees to build systems to assess the impact of their practice, we will fail.”

Events for Raising Performance: 

Finally, we have a sad passage to note. Our sector lost a wonderful person and a big intellectual force on December 20, when Duke’s Greg Dees, a key leader of the social-entrepreneurship movement, passed away at the way-too-young age of 63. It sounds like a cliché, but please make every day count. We all fool ourselves into assuming there is a tomorrow. We can’t let that cause us to waste the precious today.

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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