From Fringe to Front Burner


Leap Update, December 2014

It may sound hubristic for the two of us to recommend a New Year’s resolution for the social sector. But this is such an important issue, we’re going for it anyway: Let’s all commit to do far more to encourage and support great nonprofit leadership in 2015. Because massive social, economic, and demographic changes are producing seismic jolts to all nonprofits, we have to double down on proven strategies for helping leaders learn, adapt, and grow.

McKinsey & Company’s article “What Social Sector Leaders Need to Succeed” provides new insights into the problem and solutions. McKinsey surveyed nearly 200 social-sector leaders and found clear evidence that “chronic underinvestment in leadership development within the US social sector … has opened a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs.” The problem isn’t just at the CEO level but throughout the “C-suite.”

Here are some of the data points we found most disturbing:

  • Only 18 percent of leaders say they manage to outcomes and commit to quality improvement.
  • Only 20 percent of leaders believe they surround themselves with a talented team.
  • 90 percent of leaders think that they and their peers will prioritize their own organizations and themselves over advancing their causes.

So what can we realistically do about these challenges? We encourage you to read the full McKinsey report for all the nuances, but here’s the short version: We need to commit more funds for leadership development and, even more important, fund and support leaders to build and strengthen their organizations.

By end of the next quarter, we and more than 50 close colleagues will be coming out with “The Performance Imperative: A framework for social sector excellence,” a collective effort to codify what “high performance” is and what it takes to achieve. As you will see in that framework, the single most important competency for achieving high performance is “courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership.” In other words, if we want a social sector that is capable of adapting to the seismic jolts and making big inroads on our “wicked problems,” nothing else is as mission-critical as investing in leadership.

We know foundations are not crazy about funding “capacity building” and “infrastructure.” But we’ve seen them show real openness to investing in people. So let’s resolve to make 2015 the year when investing in people, and what they need to succeed, moves from fringe to front burner.

And now we turn to updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • We don’t agree with everything Dan Pallotta says and does, but we smiled and saluted when we got a social-media glimpse of the billboards he got Clear Channel to put up around Massachusetts. Hear, hear!
  • Big congratulations to Lissette Rodriguez and all of those from the Hewlett, Packard, Sobrato, and Weingart Foundations who are collaborating to bring the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s PropelNext initiative to California. Under Lissette’s leadership, PropelNext has been helping nonprofits master the art and science of collecting, using, and applying data to drive learning and improvement. PropelNext will now be providing up to $400,000 each to 12-16 California nonprofits “eager to transform their passion for helping disadvantaged youth into data-driven insights and practices that will help them deliver even stronger results,” in the words of the partnership’s press release.
  • Speaking of important grants, the Fund for Shared Insight, co-chaired by the Hewlett and Ford Foundations, just announced its first class of awardees, including the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Keystone Accountability, Creative Commons, Urban Institute, Exponent Philanthropy, and the Foundation Center. The awardees will receive $5.26M to “foster greater feedback loops and increase the openness of foundations in order to amplify the impact and effectiveness of philanthropy as a whole.”
  • We loved James Surowiecki‘s New Yorker article “Better All the Time.” Surowiecki, the author of the influential book The Wisdom of Crowds, looked at “the performance revolution” in sports and other fields in which excellence has become far more widespread in recent decades. And then he looked at fields that the revolution has bypassed (e.g., customer service and big swaths of US medicine and K-12 education). He concluded that the big difference between the higher and lower performers is that the former have focused more effort on “getting better at getting better.”
  • We were pleased to see Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne highlight a bipartisan bill that might otherwise have gotten lost in the crush of depressing political news. In his column “In politics, does evidence matter?,” Dionne praised Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for their bill to create a 15-member commission to study, in their words, “how best to expand the use of data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures.” A good summary of the Murray-Ryan bill can be found here, courtesy of Patrick Lester of the Social Innovation Research Center.
  • In the New York Times op-ed “Big Data Helps Colleges Help Students Graduate,” Goldie Blumenstyk offered some great examples of the ways schools are using vast stores of readily available data to improve the odds for first-generation college students. Arizona State has boosted the four-year graduation rate of lower-income students by an impressive 15 percentage points. The school is using data analytics to identify more quickly students who are struggling and to ensure that it’s offering lower-income students the classes they need at the right times. Other schools are using near real-time “heat maps” that “alert professors to students who may be cramming rather than keeping up.”
  • We commend Dr. Jeffrey Brenner and the Camden Coalition for their project to combine health data with other government datasets (e.g., police and juvenile justice records) to find opportunities for intervening faster and smarter to improve care and reduce costs. The Camden Coalition’s Integrated Data System project is driven by research showing that “the circumstances in which we live, grow, work, and age have an enormous impact on our health, long before we ever see a doctor.” Those who want to learn more about the Integrated Data System can contact Summer Tatum at


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Happy holidays,
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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