Brain + Heart + Ears

Years ago, when we first started writing about what it takes to become a high-performance organization, we tended to emphasize logic and brainpower, as exemplified by our title Leap of Reason. We’ve since gained a deeper appreciation for the essential role of heart, which led to writings such as “Wish You Had this Much Passion?,” “Got Empathy?,” “What Fuels Passion for Mission?, and “A Better-Angels Funder Practices What It Preaches.”

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Now, thanks to a group of Leap Ambassadors at the forefront of the “constituent feedback” movement, we’ve come to recognize that the ears are just as essential. In other words, you can’t be a high performer if you don’t listen carefully and systematically to the insights of the people you aspire to serve.

Recently, we asked Brad Dudding, David Bonbright, Dennis Whittle, Kathy Reich, Fay Twersky, Melinda Tuan, and other constituent-feedback experts which funders were doing the best work to help their grantees listen well to beneficiaries. We heard a resounding endorsement of the UK’s Blagrave Trust, a foundation with a modest budget and tiny staff. So we reached out to Blagrave’s director, Jo Wells, to hear from her. The full story of Blagrave’s journey is coming this fall as part of the Leap Ambassadors’ Funding Performance series, but here’s a teaser.

The Blagrave Trust, which will grant about $2.6 million this year, got its start in 1979, thanks to two wealthy businessmen. For years, the foundation was driven mainly by trust and estate considerations, with no clear strategy or focus.

Four years ago, the foundation’s trustees hired Wells, a development expert, to transition the foundation from charitable check-writing to a more-impactful approach.

Wells navigated by a North Star she found while living near the equator: First, do no harm. A relief project in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, crystallized for her that even the most professional and well-meaning aid organizations and donors rarely listen to the people they aspired to help. When she moved to Congo to help reconstruction efforts following years of war, “I was told, ‘Your role is to develop an agricultural rehab program based around the provision of seeds and tools. It’s what we’ve done elsewhere. That’s our model,” Wells recalls. “But when I [talked] to people in the community, I found out they had different views about what they wanted.”

And yet the aid organization felt unable to adapt, because significant funding was already in place based on pre-determined objectives. “We didn’t want to go back to our funders. We feared we would lose our credibility with them. That’s crazy to me now. What a tragedy to think we would lose credibility with funders for listening!”

For the past two years, Wells has been on a tear to ensure that Blagrave won’t be one of those funders. The organization’s website plants a clear flag: “The Blagrave Trust believes passionately in the importance of listening, and responding, to those we seek to serve—both young people who benefit from what we fund and organisations that benefit from receiving those funds.”

Wells has backed up this aspiration with “walk the talk” measures. She and her program colleague, Tessa Hibbert, have made feedback a core part of the application process. They’ve created a Feedback Fund to help organizations build cultures of listening—and will launch a second one soon. They’ve built a community of practice among grantees working on constituent feedback. They’ve commissioned research on Listening for Change. They’ve gathered anonymous feedback from grantees with help from Keystone. They’ve switched from project grants to 100% unrestricted core support. They’ve stopped asking grantees for bespoke monitoring reports that aren’t useful to funder or grantee. Most impressive of all, Wells and Blagrave’s five trustees recently decided to add two young beneficiaries to their board.

“I’m really uncomfortable with others saying we’re an exemplar, because we’re at the beginning of this journey,” Wells says. “But I’ve been clear from the outset that listening to our partners and the young people they serve would be a central part of the Blagrave narrative.” Blagrave’s grantees affirm that the foundation does, indeed, listen and learn. We can affirm that doing so is critically important for achieving meaningful, measurable, sustainable results. And therefore, when we release a subsequent version of the Performance Imperative later this year, the ear will gain its rightful role alongside the head and heart.

Keep the faith (and reason),

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

Jeff and Tricia Raikes, impact-minded donors who have been frustrated by the lack of targeted resources to help them on their philanthropic journey, are trying to help like-minded donors by launching Giving Compass. It’s a great hub for donors of any size who care about making a real difference with their time, treasure, and/or talent. Please be sure to check out the Leap Ambassadors Community’s new “magazine” on the Giving Compass site, dedicated to the idea that “high performance must be the norm if we are to make meaningful progress in addressing society’s most challenging problems.”
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Giving Evidence Founder Caroline Fiennes has written yet another smart, provocative article we recommend. In the journal Nature, Fiennes lays out a great case for how foundations could contribute to scientific research on what works—and what doesn’t—in philanthropy. While acknowledging that establishing the effectiveness of donors with a very diverse set of goals is not straightforward, Fiennes lays out three simple questions that, if answered and shared by foundations, could up everyone’s game: How many grants achieve their goals? What proportion of funds are devoted to activities such as preparing proposals or reports for the donor? How satisfied are the recipients with the donor’s process? “When medicine became a science, health and longevity increased,” Fiennes writes. “Similarly a science of philanthropy could reveal principles about which ways of giving are most successful.”
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The New York Times offers more than a glimmer of hope that leaders on both sides of the political aisle can come together to pass laws rooted in evidence rather than emotion. “Louisiana’s Big Step on Justice Reform” praises Louisiana’s leaders for passing 10 new laws intended to reduce the state’s staggering prison population (the highest per capita in the nation), reduce its embarrassing rate of recidivism (one third of inmates return to prison within three years), improve support for crime victims, and invest in effective anti-crime programs. Ironically, this action comes at the same time the U.S. Attorney General wants to revive funding for D.A.R.E., a program that has repeatedly been shown not just to be ineffective but possibly even counterproductive.
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Laura and John Arnold have launched a new initiative called Straight Talk on Evidence “to distinguish credible findings of program effectiveness from the many others that claim to be, through an easy-to-read, no-spin digest of recent program evaluation findings.” Check out Straight Talk’s first report, which shows that even when we read positive findings in a highly respected, peer-reviewed journal like The Lancet, we have to curb our enthusiasm and maintain a critical eye. The Arnolds also recently announced a new request for proposals for low-cost randomized controlled trials designed to build important evidence about what works in U.S. social spending. Letters of interest are due September 15.
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In related news, IBM’s Center for the Business of Government, just released a case study of the Department of Education’s Innovation and Research program. The report, written by the Social Innovation Research Center’s Patrick Lester, synthesizes findings from 44 of the program’s initial grants. Thirteen of the 44 evaluations showed positive program impacts. (Predictably, the programs that were initially deemed by the Department of Education to have more substantial evidence of success received more positive evaluations than did early-stage programs.) Seven programs showed positive effects on at least one measure. Eighteen generated no impact. Six produced only preliminary evidence from which no major conclusions could be drawn.
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We applaud Leap Ambassador Nell Edgington, author of the Social Velocity blog, for her recent interview with Leap Ambassador David Grant, the former CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and (this is true) a great Mark Twain impersonator. Nell interviewed David about his great book, The Social Profit Handbook. Nell’s questions and David’s thoughtful answers are spot on in advancing the Leap Ambassadors Community’s message that performance matters.
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Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Sept 12-13 Stanford, CA Nonprofit Management Institute: Leading Social Change in Turbulent Times“;
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Oct 18-20 Seattle BoardSource Leadership Forum“;
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Oct 25-27 Detroit Our Common Future” conference;
Independent Sector
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Nov 1 Washington, DC Feedback Crash Course” workshop;
Feedback Labs
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Nov 2-3 Washington, DC Feedback Summit“;
Feedback Labs, Fund for Shared Insight
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Nov 6-11 Washington, DC From Learning to Action” conference;
American Evaluation Association
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