Wish You Had this Much Passion?

Hamzah Latif, 44, received a nice holiday gift last week. Along with three other human-services workers, he won a Veronica Award, and its cash prize of $5,000, for his outstanding support of his clients and use of data to ensure his efforts lead to the intended outcomes. His score was the highest ever recorded in the seven-year history of the awards.

"There are no words to describe how much passion I have for helping high-risk young men turn their lives around," he told us after he learned of the award. "I love it so much I work Sunday to Sunday. My boss keeps telling me, 'Take a break. You're going to burn out.' But these young men, their lives don't have a break. So how can I take one?"

Before finding his calling as a youth worker, Hamzah spent 19 years behind bars.

His life began spinning out of control around age 12, after his single mother started struggling emotionally, and Hamzah went to live with his dad, a gospel singer in Springfield, MA. His dad had started a new family, and Hamzah felt like he no longer had a place. He hit the streets in search of masculine identity. He found it—or at least an angry, distorted version of it.

When Hamzah was 17, he was involved in a fight that turned from brutal to fatal. Hamzah got a life sentence for first-degree murder.

His time in prison was hard but not the hell often depicted by Hollywood. With the help of some older, wiser inmates, he improved his reading (he had been reading at just a fifth-grade level) and successfully fought to get his conviction overturned. (Hamzah acknowledges that he was part of the fight but maintains he did not commit the murder.) Upon release, he got help from a state representative and the head of the local Urban League, both of whom had taken an interest in his case. Hamzah learned how to type and use a computer, and he went on to run a small community organization helping boys stay out of trouble. He reconnected with his father, who today is his best friend.

After a retrial three years later, Hamzah was sentenced to a lesser charge and sent back to prison. During that time, he married his junior high sweetheart, and he converted to Islam because it helped him find peace in his inner world.

When he was released six years ago, Hamzah found an entry-level job working for the Salvation Army. "Being a Muslim going into a Christian program, I was nervous because of everything going on in the world. But they fell in love with me."

Three years ago, Hamzah became the culinary-arts instructor at Roca, Inc., which works relentlessly to rescue young men making the same bad decisions Hamzah made. "I knew I was good at cooking, but I also knew that cooking wasn't my calling." He begged his supervisors to let him apply to be a youth worker, and they gave him a shot.

What a great call that was! Roca's performance-management system tracks each youth worker on the 11 indicators—from program engagement to recidivism rates—that correlate best with the outcomes they want their clients to achieve. On 10 out of 11, Hamzah scores higher than any of his peers. He's the ultimate positive outlier on a staff of positive outliers.

Given that this is the Leap Update, we'd be remiss if we failed to share what Hamzah told us about the way that data help him combine heart with head. "If it wasn't for our performance system, none of this would be possible. I'm a visual person. It was so eye opening to me to [see] how much I'm interacting with my guys, how well they're following our model, and how all that relates to how their behavior is changing."

Congratulations to all four winners of the Veronica Awards! We know that each of you has a compelling life story that fires you with internal motivation to do what you do, and do it effectively, for those you serve.

And now for brief updates from other internally motivated, high-performance leaders:

  • We were delighted with the Nonprofit Quarterly's coverage of the closing plenary of the ARNOVA conference, which featured four Leap Ambassadors—Alnoor Ebrahim, Jacob Harold, Debra Natenshon, and Mari Kuraishi—sharing insights from "The Performance Imperative." By all accounts, the session was a huge success.
  • We continue to be deeply impressed by the progress of Results for America in advancing "Moneyball" principles in government. Because of RFA's effective advocacy, the Every Student Succeeds Act signed by the President earlier this month contains evidence-based policy provisions that could help shift more than $2 billion in federal funds toward building and using evidence to improve education outcomes. We agree with Leap Ambassador and RFA CEO Michele Jolin that "the emphasis on evidence could be a game changer for federal education funding."
  • Congratulations to Leap Ambassador Dan Cardinali and his colleagues at Communities In Schools for being featured in Nick Kristof's influential, year-end "Gifts With Meaning" column. Kristof included CIS not just because it's addressing the root causes of inequality, but also because it's effective: "91 percent of the students it helps end up graduating from high school."
  • A few months ago, the good folks at GuideStar foreshadowed what they're learning with the help of Yale economist Dean Karlan. We got new perspective on this work when we read Karlan's Wall Street Journal op-ed "A Yale Economist Wants to Make You a Better Philanthropist," and then visited Karlan's brand-new website Impact Matters. Karlan has developed an intriguing methodology for giving donors a much better sense of nonprofits' effectiveness than they can get on charity-rating sites today.
  • We applaud our colleagues at Bridgespan for encouraging donors who make multimillion-dollar gifts to go beyond "grateful beneficiary" giving—that is, gifts to universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions. In "Making Big Bets for Social Change," William Foster, Gail Perreault, Alison Powell, and Chris Addy report that only 20 percent of gifts over $10 million currently target social change, such as reducing health disparities or improving education—despite surveys showing that big donors say they put a high priority on social change. Bridgespan is on the right track to help raise this figure by continuing to shine a bright spotlight on donors like Don Fisher, who made a big bet on KIPP schools and the results of that gift for tens of thousands of students.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Warmest holiday greetings,
Mario and Lowell