Got Empathy?

In December’s newsletter, we had the chance to shine a bright spotlight on Hamzah Latif, a youth worker who won a prestigious national award for his deeply personal and highly effective work to steer young men away from the kind of bad choices that led Hamzah to 19 years behind bars. Hamzah’s story was so powerful that it made us see that we have short-shrifted a very important concept in our writing about performance: the mission-critical importance of empathy and love.

We believe a defining characteristic of high-performance organizations is that leaders, managers, and staff possess values and life experiences that contribute to a deep-rooted understanding of and heartfelt connection with the people and causes they serve.

A teacher who has empathy for a struggling student is far more likely to meet that student where she is, understand her challenges, appreciate her gifts, and then take her by the hand until she finds success. The medical field is perhaps the farthest along in quantifying the link between empathy and outcomes. Studies now show that when you’re lucky enough to have an empathetic caregiver, you’re more likely to form a trusting relationship, and you’re much more likely to follow through on his or her medical advice. Not only does this mean you have a better patient experience; it also means you get better outcomes.

In other words, empathy isn’t a touchy feely add-on. It’s a critical success factor.

Years ago University of Michigan Professor Avedis Donabedian, a giant in the field of measurement, was asked to sum up his philosophy on quality. For a hard-core data guy, he offered a startling answer: “The secret of quality is love,” Donabedian said.

Empathy and love don’t require an oncologist to have had cancer, or a youth worker to have served time in prison like Hamzah did. Similarly, they don’t require us to share the same race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or age with the person we aim to serve. Empathy and love can and do flow across all boundaries and social constructs.

Here’s what empathy and love require: Open ears and an open heart. A desire to bear witness in an intense and emotionally intelligent way. A compassion for others’ struggles, based on a humble “awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness,” in the eloquent words of the conservative columnist David Brooks.

Mea culpa—or wea culpa. We now see that we’ve been too bland and analytical in our language on high performance. The more we reflect on our experiences and those of the highest-performers we’ve met, the more we realize that high performance, empathy, and love are inextricably linked.

And now for brief updates from empathetic leaders throughout the Leap of Reason community:

  • We were blown away by David Bornstein’s “For Vulnerable Teenagers, a Web of Support” and “How a Tapestry of Care Helps Teens Succeed,” his two-part series on the Baltimore nonprofit Thread. What a comprehensive model! Thread works with the high school students in the bottom 25 percent of their class and surrounds them with unconditional 24/7/365 support—for 10 years. Thread is able to make this work financially by recruiting, training, and supporting more than 800 volunteers, many of them from nearby Johns Hopkins University. The volunteers often do not share the same ethnicity or background as their students, but Thread is outstanding at cultivating the volunteers’ empathy for and connection with them nonetheless. And the organization has incredible results to show for its efforts: “Of the 176 students who have been in Thread for less than five years, 97 percent are still attending high school or have graduated,” according to Bornstein. “Of the 79 who have been in the program for over five years, 92 percent have graduated high school and 80 percent have enrolled in a two or four year college or certification program.”
  • Leap Ambassador Gordon Berlin, the CEO of the outstanding research firm MDRC, has made a major contribution to the literature on social impact bonds (SIBs), the much-discussed vehicle for connecting “problem, solution, and capital.” In his report Learning from Experience: A Guide to Social Impact Bond Investing, Berlin draws heavily on actual operational experience—rather than theory—to provide actionable guidance for addressing inherent tensions in the SIBs mechanism and moving beyond “bespoke” deals to creating true capital markets for social good. James Anderson, head of public sector innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropy, gives the report a strong recommendation: “It is an open question whether social impact bonds will eventually occupy a prominent and sustained position in leaders’ problem-solving toolboxes. What is certain, however, is that Berlin’s analysis will serve as a helpful guide to problem-solving experimentation.”
  • In “Unbroken News,” Leap Ambassador and former Social Impact Fund (SIF) Director Paul Carttar highlights a series of highly valuable—but mostly ignored—reports on what SIF has accomplished with taxpayer funds. More specifically, the reports look at “whether the SIF was having the intended effects on … its direct grantees, the intermediaries; and whether the community-based nonprofits selected and supported by those grantees were actually making a difference for the people their programs aimed to serve,” in Carttar’s words. The reports are not only full of useful content; they also offer good news on SIF’s results and a good demonstration that SIF is willing to practice what it preaches about the value of rigorous evidence. We strongly encourage you to take a look for yourself.
  • Mario had a chance last week to get together with Jeffrey Brenner, the on-fire MacArthur Fellow who leads the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. Mario learned more about how Brenner and his team are developing a national center to share their successful, data-centered care model for serving the 20 percent of patients who typically account for 80 percent of hospital costs. “With 85 million baby boomers in the midst of retiring and state budgets facing ever-growing costs from Medicaid, it’s crucial that we rethink our care delivery models for the sickest and most complex patients,” Brenner says. “We’re building a new field and a movement for better care one patient and one community at a time.”
  • Also from the world of healthcare, which we believe to be a harbinger of changes that will come to the entire nonprofit sector, check out David Bornstein‘s Fixes blog post “Hospitals Focus on Doing No Harm.” The article shows how hospitals, with help from great organizations like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, are using data in creative ways to reduce harm to patients. For example, a hospital group in Orlando, FL, has achieved dramatic reductions in surgery-related infections by sharing with each surgeon how their rates of infection stack up against those of their peers. “Instead of having to impose changes,” Bornstein writes, surgeons came to [the chief of quality and clinical transformation] asking: ‘What should I be doing differently?'”
  • Kudos to the Obama Administration for launching The Opportunity Project, which highlights great ways that nonprofits can make use of federal datasets. You’ll find a dozen cool data tools developed by the public, private, and nonprofit sector for improving services in our communities. For example, one tool allows you to create visualizations showing how accessible public transit is from any given location. Another allows you to determine the proximity of good schools and jobs.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance: