Leap of Reason Update: September 2014

You know the expression “TMI?” Our kids—Lowell’s tweens and Mario’s young adults—have used the expression to shut down some serious discussions over the years. In the social sector, a fear of TMI may be shutting down some serious creativity.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much information when you’re managing an organization. But generally speaking, those of us in the social sector are operating with too little information (or too little of the right information). And we’re making too little effort to turn the data and information we have into the knowledge and wisdom we need.

Earlier this year, we wrote “Are We Solving Yesterday’s Problems?” We fretted aloud that “some big brains are missing possibilities inherent in our new era of big data” and challenged colleagues to “observe and absorb how new technology for collecting, analyzing, and applying information can and will influence our sector in the coming years.” That challenge stirred up a great response (including some eloquent pushback).

This month, we’ll renew that challenge with examples of innovators who believe there’s no such thing as too much information when it comes to learning and improvement.

Our first set of examples comes from the New York Times article “Student-Built Apps Teach Colleges a Thing or Two.” The article describes many ways in which students are helping themselves to university data to create useful knowledge and wisdom for fellow students. For instance, two students at U.C. Berkeley created Ninja Courses, which allows students at five University of California campuses to make much more informed decisions when they assemble their course schedules.

In the domain of healthcare, problem-solving apps are coming out literally every day. Planned Parenthood in Lowell’s region has just introduced a killer telemedicine app for addressing a killer reproductive-health challenge: Most young people are sexually active for up to nine months before they get access to reliable birth control. Mario recently downloaded PocketCPR, a free app for overcoming a key challenge in administering CPR—the fact that even those of us who have been trained forget the details when an emergency strikes.

We don’t want to suggest that all of us should become app developers. We want to suggest that all of us think more rigorously about what information we need to ensure we are on course with our work—and then double down on creative thinking about how to turn that information into useful insights.

To this end, we tip our hats to the Hewlett Foundation’s Fay Twersky, who has joined with six other funders to launch The Fund for Shared Insight. The initiative will make grants to “nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.” So much for the notion, put forward by some critics in this article and elsewhere, that the Hewlett Foundation’s leaders have changed their minds about the importance of information and evidence.

We also tip our hats to two huge corporate players: IBM and Salesforce. IBM unveiled last week a beta version of Watson Analytics, a free, cloud-based tool that anyone can use to find the needles of insight hidden inside haystacks of data. One reviewer quoted by The New York Times said it was so simple and intuitive to use that it could become “the iPhone of analytics.” And if Watson Analytics doesn’t get there, maybe Salesforce will. Not to be outdone, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is likely to unveil a user-friendly analytics tool in October.

So let’s get over this fear of TMI. If you need a jolt to get started, find a “geek Millennial” who can coach you past this fear. Just hope you don’t end up like Mario, whose geek Millennial son reminds him every day how technically out of touch he is. When we summon the courage to collect and analyze information, there’s no limit to the ways we can use it to improve the quality and effectiveness of the services we deliver.

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

  • In our years in the social sector, we’ve never seen anything like the sea change in public opinion and policy on gay marriage. So we’ve both been keenly interested in learning how advocates scored such remarkable victories in such a short time. In June, Lowell watched the HBO documentary “The Case Against 8,” which provided a powerful profile of the courageous plaintiffs and strange-bedfellow lawyers who fought California’s Proposition 8 and led the way to victory in the Supreme Court. We now have the article “Equal Effort,” a short, highly readable strategy review in the Fall 2014 edition of SSIR. “The success of the marriage equality fight over the past 10 years holds important lessons for leaders and funders of other social change movements,” writes Sylvia Yee, vice president of programs at Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. “Among the critical components of this effort were a common game plan, a collaborative approach to funding the movement’s work, and a set of shared messages that helped generate public support for change.”
  • Speaking of social-change movements, when we’re talking with nonprofit leaders about assessing outcomes, we often hear from advocacy organizations that their work is harder to assess than that of their service-delivery counterparts. Thanks to New Philanthropy Capital, we now have a new tool for helping advocates working for policy or behavior change: Cecilie Hestbaek‘s “Closing in on Change.” It’s short, free of jargon, and full of actionable insights.
  • Congratulations to Billy Shore and his whole team at Share Our Strength on being awarded a three-year, $6 million Social Innovation Fund grant—a big vote of confidence in SOS’s No Kid Hungry strategy and its potential to create a dramatic reduction in the number of children who go without proper nutrition. And congratulations are also in order to Carol Thompson Cole and her team at Venture Philanthropy Partners, which was just awarded a rare fifth year of SIF funding for its YouthConnect initiative.
  • We’re among the few and the proud who have stumbled upon a low-cost video on how governments can use low-cost experiments to “foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.” Andy Feldman, a Special Advisor on the Evidence and Innovation Team at the White House Office of Management and Budget, does a good job of defanging and demystifying the concept of the randomized controlled trial. We also liked Andy’s podcast with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s Kelly Fitzsimmons, about how the foundation helps grantees collect and analyze data to improve their effectiveness.
  • We commend Stanford Professor Dale Miller‘s nuanced perspectives in “Don’t Let Data Get in the Driver’s Seat.” It’s a great reminder that more important than great data is the “role of the decision-makers in whose hands the data ultimately rests.”
  • We applaud Urban Institute’s legendary Harry Hatry for his definitive report “Transforming Performance Measurement for the 21st Century.” What jumps out to us most is how many practical insights the report provides—the type that only could be shared by someone like Harry who “has been there and done that.” So much of what Harry wrote brought Mario back to his formative years working with federal, state, and municipal agencies to implement financial- and performance-management systems for their IT units.
  • We read with interest “Human Capital Management: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel,” Bridgespan’s interview with Mike Markovitz and Tom Eddington of AchieveMission. The interview is chock full of crossover insights from corporations that have impressive track records of developing great leaders and managers. “Most of the leaders of … larger nonprofits … are not aware of the decades of learning and the billions of dollars spent in the for-profit sector finding systematic ways to build stronger leaders, teams, and organizations,” according to Eddington. “Nor are they aware of the ways hard-won best practices can be tailored to address nonprofits.”


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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