Ernie and Bert Were Both Right

When the two of us get into heated debates, our views often divide along Ernie and Bert lines. The Ernie (not mentioning names) gazes at the data and sees a constellation of successes. The Bert (hint: his name sounds vaguely Italian) listens patiently but then screws up his face and emphasizes all the daunting challenges that remain.

These classic archetypes came out recently when we talked about building the case for funders to support their grantees’ journey to high performance—that is, encouraging funders to help grantees build data-informed learning cultures, not just demand better results. The Bert stressed how few funders are open to this kind of thinking. The Ernie highlighted several good examples of funders who are moving in the right direction.

Shortly after that conversation, the Ernie got some good new data points. Even the Bert was impressed.

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that his foundation was starting a $42M What Works Cities Initiative to help municipal governments use data to “direct funding to programs based on results, not intentions” and “keep close track of their progress [so] they can quickly change course when programs don’t work as expected.” Bloomberg is beautifully positioned to make this investment based on his track record as mayor. He oversaw city government at a simple desk with two computer monitors in a big, open, buzzing hive of city staffers with similarly modest desks. Above the hive, there were four large computer screens streaming data on how each city department was doing in meeting citizens’ needs. What a great visual representation of an executive focused on performance!

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced that it was expanding its own efforts to help governments and other funders determine with rigor what works and steer resources toward programs and organizations that truly improve lives. The Arnold Foundation has created a new Evidence-Based Policy and Innovation division and recruited Jon Baron, previously the president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and Kathy Stack, who led the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Evidence and Innovation, as its co-leaders. They couldn’t have found a more qualified or respected duo.

The other two data points were linked to the launch of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s newest report, Assessing to Achieve High Performance: What Nonprofits Are Doing and How Foundations Can Help. While the report shares some daunting Bert statistics—e.g., only a third of nonprofit leaders reported that their foundation funders help them assess their performance—it also offers some compelling Ernie portraits of positive outliers. For example, CEP highlighted the North Carolina-based Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, where organizational development is infused throughout the foundation’s work with grantees.

The report had a big impact on the Colorado Trust, which was admirably self-critical in the blog post “A Call to Rethink How We Support Grantees.” In the words of Nancy Csuti, director of research, evaluation, and strategic learning, “We must dramatically shift our focus when it comes to how we work with grantees…. Not once … do I remember asking grantees what kinds of information they collect to understand their performance [or] what data were important to them for their own decision-making…. We usually approached grantees with our questions and provided resources to collect data for our answers.” Kudos for her candor.

So yes, the Berts of the nonprofit world can point to many obstacles that stand in the way of a sector that preaches and practices high performance. But the Ernies of our sector are getting new evidence that there are funders who get it, are open to change, and willing to lend support.

We would love your thoughts on this challenge and opportunity. Please write to us and share other funder progress points. And tell us how you think funders, policymakers, and practitioners can convince more funders that supporting performance really does matter for the people and causes we all work to serve.
And now, some brief updates from the frontiers of the Performance Imperative (PI) Campaign:

  • On April 16, Leap Ambassadors Michael Bailin, Molly Baldwin, Ingvild Bjornvold, Paul Carttar, David Hunter, and Mary K. Winkler participated in “The Performance Imperative: Living Up to the Promise of the Social Sector” webinar. This Dream Team of practitioners and thought leaders introduced the PI to more than 600 nonprofit leaders.The presenters, who have come to understand the opportunities and challenges of high performance from different vantage points, did a great job of bringing the PI to life with authority and authenticity. If you missed the 90-minute webinar, we encourage you to click the link above to listen/watch whenever your schedule allows.
  • As part of a series of blog posts that will cover each of the pillars, Leap Ambassador Nell Edgington profiled a leader who exemplifies the principles of Pillar One (“Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership”): Roca Inc.’s Molly Baldwin. “Ten years ago Molly … brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.”
  • Leap Ambassador Debra Natenshon reports, “I presented ‘The Performance Imperative’ to a group of engaged corporate philanthropists as well as sharing it with my clients and other social sector leaders in the Chicago area. The response is tremendously positive…. It’s the framework so many have been waiting for. I am now integrating it as a core component of my consulting and look forward to developing tools for practitioners to make the journey to high performance a reality!”
  • The PI has been downloaded more than 5,000 times. (We believe that number actually underestimates the reach, since we know leaders who downloaded a single copy and then shared that copy with their boards, teams, or networks.) Social media traffic has been robust, with 1,367 tweets and more than 9.3M potential impressions.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:


Good luck on your journey,
Mario and Lowell