Thanks for Giving a Shiitake


Four years ago this week, we published Leap of Reason. Our initial print run was 10,000 copies—a wildly optimistic figure based, ironically enough, on faith rather than reason. Reason cautioned that only a tiny fraction of the million-plus books released every year reach the 5,000-copy threshold. In the blunt words of former Apple executive Guy Kawasaki, “In [a] sea of choices, why should anyone give a shiitake about your book?”

We won’t try to create dramatic tension here, because most of you know how things turned out: We greatly underestimated how many leaders would be willing read a tough-love treatise on the topic of nonprofit management.

Over the past four years, we have gotten the greatest joy from the notes and conversations with leaders who tell us how the book has sparked change for them and their organizations. For example, Margaret Mitchell, President and CEO, YWCA Greater Cleveland, told us, “I read it in one night and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it…. All our program managers and vice presidents, we’re all reading the book.” Rich Trickel, CEO, City Mission, shared, “Our leadership team read Leap of Reason together, chapter by chapter, in our monthly team meetings. Our leaders are incorporating the principles they learned in the new action plans they are writing. I’m very excited to see the impact this will have on the men, women, and children we serve!”

Just this past weekend, Mario was on a walk with a young friend of a friend, who commented on how much importance his mother has placed on the book and that she recently reached out to urge him to read it as he enters the next stage of his career. The next day in a Cleveland grocery store parking lot, Mario ran into one of his daughter’s closest friends, who said that her mom had given her a dog-eared copy of the book, with Post-its highlighting the sections she wanted her daughter to study. Parents referring a work to their kids—that’s guaranteed to bring smiles to our faces.

Truth be told, we’re not yet seeing signs that Leap of Reason, Working Hard—And Working Well, the Leap Ambassadors Community, “The Performance Imperative,” or the many aligned efforts led by colleagues have tipped our sector toward higher performance. We still see far too few nonprofits creating a culture of performance. And we still see far too few funders stepping up to help nonprofits that do take this leap.

But we do feel that a tipping point is out there and possible for us to hit. We are truly inspired by those nonprofit leaders who are well along the road to high performance, demonstrating what’s possible and why it’s worth the effort. We are also encouraged by the way new financial incentives are bringing a greater focus on performance. By far the most impacting is how new financial incentives have created the proverbial “burning platform” for the healthcare field, forcing a focus on improved outcomes and lower costs. We believe healthcare is a harbinger of big change for the rest of our sector.

So we’ll keep beating the drum. We’ll continue to share insights from healthcare’s, well, bleeding edge. We’ll shine a spotlight on positive outliers operating in areas of the nonprofit world that get less funding and attention than healthcare. We’ll help nonprofit leaders make a compelling case to their funders that investing in performance is much more effective than simply demanding “more information on results.” And we’ll continue to coalesce a coalition of the willing. This is a long-haul challenge, and we’re in it for good.

And now, some brief updates from outposts of the Performance Imperative campaign:

  • Kudos to Dominique Bernardo, Kristin Moore, Vanessa Sacks, and Martha Beltz for their candid insights into the Performance Imperative’s pillar six (internal monitoring) and pillar seven (external evaluation) during their very well attended May 12 PerformWell webinar. If you missed the conversation, no worries. You can replay the webinar at your convenience.
  • True to form, MDRC did a great job of rigorously studying the outcomes from Youth Villages’ YV LifeSet The program focuses on young people who have had way more than their share of hardship: youth who have turned 18 and aged out of the foster or juvenile-justice systems. “Until now, research on programs for young people aging out of foster care or juvenile justice systems has shown just how difficult it is to make a positive difference in their lives,” said MDRC President Gordon Berlin. “The Youth Villages intervention stands out as one program that demonstrably improves these young people’s well-being across a wide range of outcomes.” MDRC’s study is the largest random-assignment evaluation on any program focused on this important population.
  • Results for America and The Bridgespan Group teamed up to produce the detailed policy brief “The What Works Marketplace: Helping Leaders Use Evidence to Make Smarter Choices.” The authors looked carefully at what information resources are available to government officials responsible for making decisions about K-12 education and child welfare. The authors found growing supply of, and demand for, information on effectiveness. Predictably, they also found significant gaps that stand in the way of the kind of healthy information marketplace we’d all like to see. We hope their wise recommendations get serious attention from policymakers and private funders alike.
  • Billy Shore is one of our all-time-favorite writers and human beings, so it’s very easy to recommend his SSIR review of a book that’s been on both of our reading lists: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam. As you probably know by now, Putnam chronicles the demise of “the American Dream” in his childhood home of Port Clinton, OH, about an hour from Mario’s home. Shore expresses admiration for the way Putnam lays bare the socioeconomic damage among lower and middle class families, but he takes Putnam to task for pulling his punches. “The book [falls] short in accounting for the powerful forces that have made widening inequality a fact of American life,” Shore writes. “If Putnam had written a similar book about ‘our climate,’ it would leave the impression that the earth had merely drifted closer to the sun; it wouldn’t cover the human decisions and actions that have caused global temperatures to rise.”
  • In a possible sign that the wonderful “Fixes” blog is influencing The New York Times‘s print-edition editors, nurse home-visitation programs, including the iconic Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), got mainstream attention in “Visiting Nurses, Helping Mothers on the Margin.” Reporter Sabrina Tavernise explains the concept of nurse visitation in human terms, following a skilled nurse during her visits with first-time moms. And with the help of our colleague Jon Baron, Tavernise explores the issue of whether NFP’s great results can be replicated as the program scales up with federal help.
  • A special thank you to Urban Institute’s Mary Winkler, who is constantly going above and beyond the call of duty in spreading the gospel of high performance though social media, presentations, and research. In her recent blog post “Seven disciplines for social-sector excellence,” she does a great job of encapsulating ways organizations can accelerate the adoption of “The Performance Imperative.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

In closing, we want to express our gratitude for the reception, encouragement, and support you have given our work over these past four years. And we are so appreciative of the positive change in performance (and the social benefit it creates) that many of you are making every day.

Good luck on your journey,
Mario and Lowell