We know the inauguration and the dizzying eddies of chaos around it are top of mind. But the truth is, the two of us still don’t have much wisdom to add about what’s to come for our sector’s causes and budgets. We feel like we’re playing a game of chess in which all the old rules are being tossed out, the clock has started ticking, and we have to make our move without a clue about the new rules.
So for now we’re sticking to our knitting. And that gives us an opportunity to shine a warm spotlight on a very cool meeting we recently got to peek in on: the twice-yearly confab of Playworks, an organization that promotes safe and healthy play, and its largest “growth capital investors.”
Meetings aren’t usually the stuff of spotlighting. But this meeting demonstrated not just what’s possible when a high-performance nonprofit interacts in a high-performance way with high-performance funders. It gave us a glimpse of what it might look like if there were a whole ecosystem of high-performance funders engaging with each other for the benefit of grantees and the families they serve.
Jill Vialet and Elizabeth Cushing, Playworks’s impressive CEO and president, initiated these meetings to give their growth investors a chance to develop a relationship with each other. In Elizabeth’s words, “the meetings are more SEL [social and emotional learning] than MBA.”
But there is an MBA component. Gathering all of their major funders in the same room made it easier for Playworks to transition to the efficient, effective approach of having all of the funders hold them accountable for the exact same outcomes. (It was quite gratifying to us that they chose to do so based on the Leap Ambassador Community’s Performance Imperative.)
In the meeting we listened in on, Jill and Elizabeth brought their investors up to speed on how they’re doing on their key outcomes, and they acknowledged with great candor the challenges they face on the road to reaching 3.5 million children with meaningful, measurable, sustainable results. For example, Jill reported on the organization’s efforts to assess what happens after Playworks exits a school. “At one school I visited, it was disappointing to me how much the program had eroded,” she reported. Together, the group brainstormed on how Playworks could do more to build their approach into the DNA of the school so its work would live on.
The group also brainstormed about Playworks’s innovative efforts to reduce costs and reach many more kids without compromising its core mission. And they brainstormed about how Playworks can position itself in a new national landscape in which combatting bullying and promoting social and emotional health are more important than ever.
We witnessed a true culture of learning and improvement. We heard a two-way dialogue that modeled Playworks’s emphasis on empathy. We observed cross-pollination among funders who care about many of the same issues but had rarely worked together. We saw a nonprofit engaging its funders not just for their wallets but also their brains.
This kind of dialogue between nonprofits and their funders could be the norm in our sector. And that would make a great New Year’s resolution!
And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:
- The Leap Ambassadors Community is launching a “Funding Performance” campaign to encourage donors to a) see that their impact is inextricably tied to the performance of their grantees and b) consider using The Performance Imperative and the Performance Imperative Organizational Self-Assessment (PIOSA) prototype for supporting their grantees’ performance. As part of this campaign, we’re releasing a passionate plea entitled “Funding Performance: How Donors Can Do More Good.” It profiles the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (one of Playworks’s growth investors), the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and Blue Meridian Partners–all of which are doing a great job of helping grantees strengthen the core disciplines we outlined in The Performance Imperative.
- Speaking of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) and Blue Meridian Partners, we send our sincere congratulations to CEO Nancy Roob for being named Inside Philanthropy‘s “Foundation President of the Year” and for Blue Meridian winning “Big Bet of the Year.” And speaking of EMCF, we commend Lissette Rodriguez on her “Lessons from the Field,” about EMCF’s PropelNext grantees and their journey to high performance. You can also glean valuable insights from a trove of videos featuring PropelNext grantees talking openly about their real-world lessons.
- In “Listening to Beneficiaries Helps Nonprofits Learn What Doesn’t Work,” Ford’s Hilary Pennington and Hewlett’s Fay Twersky lay out a beautiful case for why “beneficiary feedback” is such an important complement to rigorous external evaluations. They share the story of Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), which has been widely praised for its randomized controlled trials (RCTs) but until recently had not taken the logical step of simply asking its clients what they think of the services they receive. When NFP started doing so, they learned that some of their key assumptions were off base. If you’re interested in learning more about this budding “feedback movement,” please check out Keystone Accountability’s new Feedback Commons, where you can collect, analyze, and benchmark feedback data from the people you serve.
- Youth Villages CEO Pat Lawler‘s SSIR commentary “Moving from Pass/Fail to Continuous Progress,” is a great piece of wisdom for a world that struggles with the ever-present risk of oversimplified data overpowering discerning judgment. Pat suggests we move beyond the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” mentality often associated with RCTs and other forms of rigorous external evaluation. He advises us to use information to improve programs and secure more positive trajectories for service recipients in the future. Great job, Pat! We hope the world listens to what you’ve shared.
- Even as we shy away from speculating about what the Trump era means for our sector, we recommend you read what a real expert has to say. In “America’s concern for the poor is about to be tested,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Bob Greenstein uses his legendary budget knowledge to help us understand the implications of the fiscal plans now being drawn up on Capitol Hill. His number-one concern is the likelihood of major cuts in non-defense discretionary spending, the part of the budget that includes many critical programs for vulnerable Americans–from efforts to fight homelessness to Head Start to Pell Grants.
- Sector icon Dorothy Stoneman is passing the leadership baton at YouthBuild U.S.A., the organization she created 38 years ago to transform the lives of disconnected youth. We’ve known Dorothy for many years and watched in admiration as she turned YouthBuild into one of the country’s preeminent programs for reconnecting young people with educational and work opportunities and helped spread the program to 21 countries. In the words of one grateful YouthBuild graduate, “They taught me that my life wasn’t over because I didn’t finish school. No matter what happens in your life, you can truly fix it.” We can’t imagine Dorothy will stay idle in retirement. Too many up-and-coming new leaders will come seeking her wise counsel.
Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:
- “Governance Has Its Virtues” webinar; January 25; BoardSource
- “State of the States: Budgeting in the Trump Era” forum; January 26; Washington, DC; Urban Institute
- “Quality Assurance on the Ground: Better Data, Better Outcomes?” webinar; January 26; Social Solutions
- “From Possibilities to Responsibilities” conference; February 7-8; Stanford, CA; Stanford PACS, SSIR
Mario and Lowell