Impetus to Change

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it also takes an SOB.

If David Hunter were a rapper rather than a performance whisperer, his stage name might have been Notorious SOB. (He’s a good friend, so we don’t have to beat around the bush.) His tough-love workshops are infamous for reducing participants to tears.

A few years ago, Hunter spoke on a panel in Boston alongside Daniela Barone Soares, then the CEO of a UK-based foundation called Impetus Trust, which aimed to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth. Soares was blown away by Hunter’s unique blend of passion and rigor. She invited him to London to help shake up her team.

The timing was perfect. Impetus Trust was completing a merger with The Private Equity Foundation to form Impetus-PEF. “As an organization, we had always been worried we weren’t doing enough,” recalls Jenny North, Impetus-PEF’s director of policy and strategy. “The merger gave us a chance to take a hard look.”

North’s colleague Chiku Bernardi, one of the firm’s investment directors, explains, “We had been operating under the assumption that the charity leaders knew their product, and we weren’t supposed to look into it…. We didn’t have the confidence to ask tougher, more analytical questions.”

After Hunter’s workshop and three years of implementing the blueprint that emerged, the organization and its new CEO, Andy Ratcliffe, are on a completely different path. Hunter, who is not one for doling out compliments, says that Impetus-PEF “is now the funder that has the best-worked-out and -implemented approach to social investing, bar none.”

Where once Bernardi and her investment-director colleagues felt unable to ask tough questions, they now dive deep with all grantees in a spirit of “empathetic challenge.” In one session Bernardi facilitated for a grantee, she created a space in which frontline staff were able to share hard truths with management. One of the hardest truths was that the organization was inadvertently “creaming”–serving many people who didn’t have significant needs and, in the process, artificially inflating its outcome data. “Management was shocked and pained,” North reports. “But that led to brave decisions. They cut their caseloads in half, despite the cost implications. They knew that was necessary to get good outcomes with the people who really needed their help.”

To learn more about Impetus-PEF’s approach, check out “Driving Impact,” which does a brilliant job of documenting exactly how Impetus-PEF helps its grantees. You’ll love the concreteness of the section in which Impetus-PEF shares before-and-after illustrations of how its grantees clarified their missions, target populations, and intended outcomes during the course of working with Bernardi and Impetus-PEF’s six other investment directors.

We hate to admit it, but “Driving Impact” is clearer and easier to read and adopt than anything the two of us have ever written for donors. We intend to share the document far and wide and then write about Impetus-PEF’s transformation for our new “Funding Performance” series. By holding up their example, we hope to demonstrate for funders that investing in the performance of grantees is smart money.

And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community.

  • Last week, we all got a clear view of the new Administration’s budget priorities. As we feared, the Administration’s “skinny budget” looks like a starvation diet for our sector and the tens of millions of people we serve. As we emphasized in our post “Preparing for the Unknown,” now is the time to “organize your key stakeholders and connect with your elected officials and their staffs at every chance–so they understand the role you play in the community and how policy changes affect your ability to deliver effective services.” Jim Shaffer and Michael Wyland offer similar advice in Nonprofit Quarterly: “While nonprofits should not panic … now is the time to gather your resources, allies, stakeholders and strategies for the fight ahead which will undoubtedly will be more intense on some battlefields than on others but, for this period, vigilance and the ability to flexibly respond where needed with strategies and supporters in hand will be critical.”
  • Nonprofits are hungry for knowledge. We’re feeding them.” That’s the title of a new post by the Drucker Institute’s Rick Wartzman and Laura Roach encouraging nonprofit leaders to compete for the institute’s $100K Drucker Prize, which opened for applications last week. In addition to honoring a highly innovative nonprofit with a cash prize (last year’s winner was ImproveCareNow), the Drucker Prize offers a powerful learning experience, giving all applicants access to an electronic platform with high-quality video lectures, excerpts from Peter Drucker’s 39 brilliant books, and a series of deep-think questions. The authors report that last year “engagement on the platform exceeded our every expectation. Applicants absolutely devoured the learning, and many told us that they couldn’t wait to do it all again.”
  • At a time when there are so many negative stories in the news, we’ve become even bigger fans of The New York Times‘s “Fixes” blog, a goldmine of good-news stories about what’s working. In “A School Where Raising the Bar Lifts Hope,” Sara Butrymowicz reports on successful efforts to get more high school students to graduate and earn post-secondary degrees. In Spokane, WA, the district is pushing all students harder–by adding more AP courses, “eliminating choices to the point where you really only have college-ready choices,” and analyzing achievement data to intervene early and often with kids who are off track. In the words of one dynamic principal quoted in the article, “For kids in poverty, more often than not, what they’re saying is, ‘I’m not a good student,'” she said. “What we have to do is convince them, ‘Well, actually, you are.'”
  • This video from The Hechinger Report is well worth three minutes of your time. It profiles an innovative new schooling program within the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center. In the words of a history teacher featured in the video, “I taught four years at traditional middle schools and high schools, and this is the first time I’m seeing kids get excited. When you’re not in a confined space, you have tons of distractions. In here, our students are really searching.” The school is treating the students like scholars, not criminals–and the results are impressive.
  • In his SSIR article “How Boosting Education Research Could Revolutionize US Schooling,” Robert Balfanz brings to light a lesser-known provision embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act (the successor to No Child Left Behind): “States must take an evidence-based approach to turning around the bottom five percent of schools, and work with local districts to craft and execute evidence-backed interventions.” Balfanz sees the act as an opportunity to “move education from a craft to an evidence-based enterprise,” similar to what happened in medicine a century ago. But only if we get smart about investing in rigorous research to learn what works. “For the benefit of their balance sheets, corporate giants like Google and Walmart regularly conduct thousands of randomized studies on the viability of products,” writes Balfanz. “Imagine a world in which we invested with equal intensity in determining what works for young people’s education.”

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