The Good Kind of Bad News


As bad news goes, it doesn’t get any better than this: So many great leaders are addressing the challenge of high performance that we’ve had to apply a brutal filter to keep this month’s update to a manageable length. No room for throat clearing. Let’s just hit it:
  • As we reported last month, in February we will release David Hunter’s Working Hard—and Working Well, which provides the secret formula behind Hunter’s intensive, tough-love workshops that have sparked transformation for many of the country’s top nonprofit organizations. To help launch the book, our friends at PerformWell and Social Solutions are hosting a webinar on March 7 featuring David as well as Sam Cobbs, the CEO of First Place for Youth. (I’ll be offering a brief intro.) Because we anticipate strong demand, the Social Solutions team is footing the bill to triple the webinar’s attendance capacity to 3,000 participants. If you’re interested, please sign up by clicking the link above.
  • Venture Philanthropy Partners has just released a case study, youthCONNECT: A (Net)Work in Progress, which provides an insider’s look at six high-performing nonprofits’ effort to build a common outcomes framework and monitoring system. Assessing progress one organization at a time is hard enough. Developing and using common outcome measures/frameworks adds another whole level of risk—and reward. Figuring out ways for the nonprofits to leverage their respective resources and roles goes to the heart of this collective effort. This case study is candid about the complexities and concrete in ways that can be very helpful for all leaders who recognize that the goals they share are not achievable without harnessing efforts of multiple nonprofits within a region.
  • Thanks to Lucy Bernholz for bringing to our attention the Hewlett Foundation’s Evaluation Principles and Practices. We found the report, authored by Fay Twersky and Karen Lindblom, to be insightful, pragmatic, straightforward, and loaded with kernels of wisdom. As I shared with Fay in an email, the paper’s Seven Principles of Evaluation should be made into a card for easy reference for anyone who wants to stay focused on the critical question “to what end?”
  • Speaking of the Hewlett Foundation, former Hewlett Foundation CEO Paul Brest, who has been recalled to active duty at Stanford, is teaching a course on managing to outcomes at the Graduate School of Business. A review of the course syllabus made it clear that he has done an excellent job in organizing this subject matter and brought balance, focus, and breadth of consideration to a topic many see too narrowly. My immediate reaction was, “This is a course I’d love to attend!” Paul notes astutely in the introduction: “Ever mindful that performance management is a graveyard of good intentions, we will study the practical aspects of institutional change—including leadership, accountability, learning, and culture—that often account for the difference between success and failure.” It’s a real honor that Paul assigned Leap of Reason as the class’s first text.
  • We read with interest an early excerpt from Bill Gates’s annual letter, which appeared in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal. The piece made a compelling case for the ways in which “good measurement and a commitment to data” can enable big progress against wicked problems. While I agree with his core premise, the piece did not touch on some essential factors in the measurement equation. In my experience, effective measurement is almost never possible without effective management. In other words, even if we were to determine exactly the right things to measure, those measures will have no impact unless funders and social-sector leaders invest in making measurement a core discipline for the organization, from the board to the executives to the folks on the front lines.
  • My good friend Lou Salza, the head of the Lawrence School, turned me onto a great case study in performance at southeastern Washington’s Kennewick School District. Thanks to the relentless approach well documented in the book Annual Growth, Catch-up Growth, the district raised the percentage of its third graders reading at or above grade level from 55% to 90%. Earlier this month, my colleague Lowell Weiss visited Kennewick and met with several of the architects of Kennewick’s success, including former Kennewick board member Lynn Fielding, assistant superintendent Greg Fancher, and former principal David Montague. We hope that Kennewick, which lies close to the famous nuclear site that manufactured plutonium in World War II, will become far more famous as a laboratory for sparking a performance culture in the kind of bureaucratic system that is more accustomed to modest, incremental change.
  • We got a very generous note from Kathryn Kelly, the executive director of eLearning Cafés (Incline Village, NV), who is putting Leap of Reason to good use. Kelly, a homeschool mom and biologist, has created a nonprofit blended-learning center in her small Lake Tahoe neighborhood to accelerate the creative disruption of staid classroom models. In her café, students can take online and blended classes, get tutoring, participate in clubs, and find good coffee and community. “The first thing I did after reading Leap of Reason [was] to reconstitute our board, as all the former directors ever asked about were the financial statements…. I kept saying at board meetings, ’But don’t you want to know if we are really educating our students?.’ Not many things come along in my life that are that transformative. Leap of Reason is certainly one of those.”

Finally, here are some relevant reads we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave out of this update:

Given all these insights and experiments—and the many we were not able to squeeze in to this update—it’s already apparent that performance is going to be a big and growing topic in this new year. Thanks for the ways you are contributing to this inflection moment.

My best,