Go Fast and Go Far


Our colleague Patty Stonesifer, Martha’s Table’s brilliant CEO, loves to quote this famous African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Last week, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) went public with a bold move that may prove that going fast and going far are not mutually exclusive.

EMCF CEO Nancy Roob and Board Chair Larry Clark announced that the foundation is going to spend down all of its assets—more than a billion dollars—over the next 10 years. To what end? First, to accelerate the foundation’s giving for vulnerable children and youth. That’s the “go faster” part. Second, to advance its approach to “capital aggregation”—pooling funds with other individuals and institutions seeking bigger, more sustainable impact. That’s the “go far” part.

For the past six or seven years, EMCF’s board has been looking at different ways the foundation could free the country’s best nonprofit leaders to think really big about bringing their evidence-based work to national scale. In our view, they came to a great decision on how to accomplish that goal.

Changing the foundation’s structure will substantially increase the resources it can invest over the next decade. It will also give a big shot in the arm to Blue Meridian Partners, which pools the capital of multiple heavy hitters (such as billionaires Stan Druckenmiller, Sergey Brin, Steve Ballmer, George Kaiser, David Tepper, and their families) in support of the highest-performing nonprofits. EMCF’s decision makes Blue Meridian an even more attractive vehicle for wealthy individuals and institutional investors, allowing them to increase their leverage while reducing their risk.

As Joel Fleishman noted in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “They did not decide to spend down first.” Their decision to sunset—or “bet the farm,” in the words of one of EMCF’s founders—was driven by a board engaging in think-bigger introspection about how it could best meet its obligations to the young people it aspires to serve. We congratulate everyone at EMCF on this courageous decision. Once again, EMCF has raised the bar for the rest of us!

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

  • Making the Case for Evidence-Based Decision-Making,” by Jennifer Brooks, is chock full of great insights for all of us who want to see public policies based on data and evidence rather than guesswork or patronage. With compelling examples from her work at the National Governors Association, she argues that many efforts are not responsive to the needs of policymakers and not oriented toward continuous improvement. For example, she notes that “when I was in government, we spent tens of millions of dollars on the randomized control trials of Head Start, which provided information on the effectiveness of the program at a high level but offered … remarkably little data to understand what programs were being implemented at the local level or how well they were being implemented.”
  • We were pleased to see that the Heritage Foundation, which is playing a key role in advising the incoming Administration, is pushing for increased use of evidence. Its Blueprint for a New Administration advocates for reinstating and improving the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) created by the George W. Bush Administration. PART had mixed, but positive-on-net results, as described in The Atlantic article “Can Government Play Moneyball?” (Our thanks to Patrick Lester of the Social Innovation Research Center for flagging the Heritage report.)
  • If the new Administration does value evidence for improving lives and saving money, then it would be wise to build on the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, which is helping to divert low-level offenders with untreated mental illness into appropriate treatment programs rather than jail. In “How Data-Driven Justice Is Changing Lives and Saving Resources,” Social Solutions reports on the work of early adopters, including those in red states. For example, Knoxville, TN, Police Chief David Rausch reports that “arrests have dropped and my officers are thrilled to know they have a place to take people where they will get the help they need.”
  • Our congratulations to Results for America and its What Works Cities initiative for being selected, for the second year in a row, as one of Forbes‘s “ten most promising big bets” for social change. Also, we love seeing that the overall number of big bets is on the rise. We just hope that as the list grows in size, we continue to see commensurate growth in the number of big bets focused on providing large infusions of capital to help individual nonprofits become high performers. Many of the “big bets” on the Forbes list are funder-led initiatives that will spread out their gifts over dozens, if not hundreds, of different nonprofits, with no special emphasis on performance.
  • We recommend A New Model for Growing Impact, which does a good job of laying out both the value and difficulties in helping nonprofits integrate measurement into their organizational DNA. This Urban Institute report shares insights from the first two years of Measure4Change, which is helping DC-area nonprofits adopt strong performance-management practices, the core of The Performance Imperative‘s Pillar 6. The Measure4Change participants all found the work to be hard (“two steps forward, one step back”). But they made significant progress during the two-year pilot period. Kudos to the report’s authors, Brett Theodos, Lindsey Buss, Mary Winkler, and Sara McTarnaghan.
  • Finally, an item that’s close to home. Venture Philanthropy Partners surprised the heck out of Mario, in the nicest possible way, when they announced a new Mario M. Morino Distinguished Fellowship. Starting in 2018, the program will give one top community leader every year an opportunity to design a learning journey that will expose him or her to best practices in nonprofit management. Mario was touched beyond words.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

  • The Gig Economy” webinar; January 25; SSIR, The Bridgespan Group, Rockefeller Foundation

Very happy holidays to you and yours,
Mario and Lowell