One Small Step, One Giant Leap


On September 20, this aging Italian took a small step (through an intimidating Secret Service security gauntlet) to join a distinguished group of social sector leaders at theWhite House Forum on Philanthropy Innovation. I shared an idea that, if brought to fruition, could represent a giant leap forward for our sector.

I challenged all the philanthropic leaders in the room to steal a disruptive innovation from the world of education. The Khan Academy has quietly become the world’s most popular education site. I believe we should apply this simple and brilliant model to raising the bar for performance across the social sector.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of John Gardner’s birth, sector leaders should join together to create the John Gardner Performance Academy to give nonprofits the benefit of learning—any time, anywhere—from the world’s greatest experts and practitioners in performance leadership and culture. Such an effort could demystify and unpack the jargon around “performance.” It could help social sector leaders understand why performance is perfectly compatible with—in fact, inseparable from—a heartfelt drive to achieve mission. It could rally foundation resources to the cause. It could leverage the extremely scarce talent base and knowledge on high performance.

The John Gardner Performance Academy is just a kernel of an idea at this stage. We welcome insights at from anyone who sees potential, knows of courseware or videos that could be adapted, or would like to lend brainpower or other support.

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

  • We applaud Ellie Buteau and her colleagues at the Center for Effective Philanthropy for their newest research report, Room for Improvement: Foundations’ Support of Nonprofit Performance Assessment. The report makes clear there’s a big demand for performance measurement on the part of nonprofits and yet funders are missing a big opportunity to help them. More than 80% of nonprofit leaders say “nonprofits should demonstrate the effectiveness of their work by using performance measures,” and yet 71% say they receive no foundation support for their organization’s assessment efforts.
  • Elizabeth Boris of the Urban Institute is refreshingly blunt in a powerful blog postabout the CEP report: “Most foundations are missing in action…. With some exceptions, foundations are not supporting grantees in building the capacity to collect and use relevant data.”
  • The revered scholar Lee Schorr, who has been a mentor to me since I first entered the social sector two decades ago, makes a powerful plea in this quarter’s Stanford Social Innovation Review for an expansive definition of what constitutes appropriate evidence when we’re looking for “what works.” Using a wealth of real-world examples, Schorr counsels against jumping to the (not terribly evidence-based) conclusion that randomized trials are the only form of evidence that should be acceptable. Randomized trials “are not always the best method for obtaining needed knowledge,” she writes. “The key is to match evaluation methods to specific types of interventions and different needs to know.”
  • Next week, Beth Kanter and Katie Paine’s book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World, hits Amazon and other bookstores. Its central message, which is highly aligned with Leap of Reason, is that nonprofits can do a far better job of meeting their missions if they build and nurture a data-informed culture. We had the honor of offering suggestions to Beth on an early draft of the book, which we highly recommend for any nonprofit that uses social networks and social media and wants to get better and better at leveraging these powerful tools.
  • Our friends at the Case Foundation have just launched Finding Fearless, a search for and clever way to highlight “undiscovered social innovators who are dreaming big and taking risks to change their communities and the world.” Case, along with partners Microsoft and REI, will be giving away more than $650,000 in grants, tech prizes, and outdoor adventures to help Fearless Changemakers take their work to the next level. We encourage you to nominate changemakers you admire.
  • We want to give you a heads up on some upcoming speaking engagements. On October 4, I’ll be speaking at the Foundation Center of Cleveland on high performance, courageous leadership, performance culture, innovation, and merit-based funding. You can catch the live video stream from 10:45 to 11:45 am ET. On October 11, I’ll have the honor of speaking to the national directors and many of the chapter trustees of The Nature Conservancy. I will focus my remarks to this legendary organization on how it can nurture its performance culture to prepare for the seismic shifts that are shaking the foundations of our economy, society, and natural environment.

I’ll close by acknowledging another big leap forward. Last week, we crossed the 50,000-book threshold, a figure that is 10 times greater than any of us imagined when the rest of the Leap of Reason contributors and I first signed up for this journey. It’s not fair to compare this number with those for other books that have a price on the cover, because our book is free. But I want to tell you that we are blown away by interest in the book’s message and deeply grateful for all the energy and support so many of you have lent along the way.

My best,