Mnogo srece

No, that subject line isn’t a typo. It means “good luck” in Serbian. Why is a guy who often mangles his native tongue trying Serbian? Read on, my friends.

Serbia has come a long way in the 14 years since the end of the Kosovo War. Although ethnic tensions still run high, last month Serbia approved an agreement to normalize relations with Kosovo, and European Union (EU) membership is now a real possibility.

Even before the recent diplomatic breakthrough, Serbia has benefitted in recent years from a big infusion of development assistance ($320M a year) from the EU. But those funds have had relatively little impact. Aleksandar Ristin, who coordinates a network of 20 nonprofit and public-sector organizations in Serbia that are managing many of the EU-funded projects, wrote us to share—in perfect idiomatic English, no less—that “most of the projects were without lasting/sustainable results, with most of them just sinking in the sand after their (always) ’successful’ completion.” The contrast between the projects’ nice-looking reports and their lack of meaningful results “was driving us crazy.”

Last summer, Ristin and his colleagues stumbled upon Leap of Reason and made it required reading within their NGO network. They used the book, as well as materials from the European Venture Philanthropy Association, to spark a profound rethink within the network. In Ristin’s words: “To cut the long story short, our organisations and their programs and projects now have the impact-first focus…. We are demanding attention on sound, outcomes-based project management [and] choosing to support a much smaller number of higher-caliber organisations and projects.” Most encouraging of all, Ristin is sharing his work with EU officials looking for new approaches to ensure more impactful use of development funds Europe-wide.

Mnogo srece, Aleksandar. And thanks for inspiring others to take the leap.

And now, here are some brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • In another good example of how readers are taking the book and running with it, we heard recently from Jerry Wareham and Kit Jensen, the talented leaders of ideastream, the multiple-media public service organization that owns and operates Northeast Ohio’s public TV and radio stations. As part of their ongoing efforts to engage their senior management team in matters of organizational performance, Jerry and Kit turned Leap’s “Ideas into Action” section into a survey to assess their senior team’s perceptions of how they were doing on key indicators of performance. They reported that the exercise was both illuminating and surprising. They found an unexpected variation of perceptions among the members of the senior management team. Instead of turning away from this finding, Jerry and Kit are planning an in-depth work session to dig deeper into the team’s perspectives in an effort to achieve alignment regarding the readiness of the organization to fully embrace an outcomes-based model.
  • Last month, we reported on the promising start of Results for America, an advocate for allocating taxpayer dollars based on data and evidence. As part of RFA’s strategy for making evidence-based decision-making a mainstream, common-sense cause, RFA encouraged prominent Democrat Peter Orszag and Republican John Bridgeland to write an article for The Atlantic Monthly. Their article, “Can Government Play Moneyball?,” will appear in the magazine’s annual Ideas Issue, which hits the newsstands on June 25. We got a sneak peek at the article. It’s tough, no-nonsense, and provocative. In our June update, we’ll share the link to the article and encourage you to spread the word to the public officials who fund in areas of concern to you.
  • Speaking of The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine’s online edition just came out with “Why Recess Might Be the Most Important Part of School,” an article on the high performance of Jill Vialet and her great team at Playworks. “A recent randomized controlled study backs up what principals and teachers have been observing about Playworks since its inception,” noted writer Sarah Goodyear. “A better recess does make a difference.”
  • And speaking of well-deserved press for high-performance leaders, we were delighted to see that Molly Baldwin, the rock-star ED of Roca, was named to the Globe 100, along with top innovators from the corporate and nonprofit sectors. “Her unique form of activism combines grass-roots street work with data-driven analysis, using evaluation and tracking records to measure successes and failures,” The Boston Globe noted.
  • On May 22, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s conference dedicated to “Pursuing Results.” The panel was expertly moderated by Nadya Shmavonian and featured Dan Cardinali and Denise Zeman. Dan and Denise really hit it out of the park with their truth-telling about what funders must do if they really care about helping their grantees achieve the results they demand. I loved it when Dan implored the audience to “invest as heavily as you can in [program officers’] capacity. It’s the exception, not the rule, that they have an understanding of what it takes to operate a federated system like ours. I provide a lot of technical assistance.” And I salute Denise for saying that “we have to hold [our own staff] to the same standards we hold our grantees to.” The video from the discussion is not yet ready, but I’ll include a link in a subsequent update.
  • At the same conference, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, a brave thinker and great presenter (he curses at the podium even more than I do!), pushed hard for more rigorous research to determine what works in education. He shared the story of visiting an afterschool program, whose executive director asked him to help the organization raise money. When he asked what evidence they had that the program was making a difference for the kids it served, the executive director responded with what Fryer labeled the “cardiac test”: “Can’t you just feel it in your heart?!” Fryer stated that only one tenth of a percent of education programs are credibly evaluated. And he reported on his research into the five strategies that are most highly correlated with student achievement: more time in school; small-group tutoring; performance-based human capital management; data-driven instruction and student performance management; and a school culture of high expectations.
  • David Hunter, author of Working Hard—and Working Well, presented at the Alliance for Children and Families‘s recent conference for executive directors of nonprofit human-serving organizations. His focus was on creating the performance-management cultures and capacities necessary to demonstrate impact. The Alliance represents 350 human-serving organizations, with a combined annual budget of more than $5B. Since David’s presentation, the Alliance’s impressive president and CEO, Susan Dreyfus, has indicated that she’s interested in working with David to help their network and the Alliance itself develop the knowledge, skills, commitment, and capacities to improve organizational performance and help solve some of society’s toughest problems.


Upcoming Events for Raising Performance:

Having more than 60,000 copies of Leap of Reason in circulation is great. But what really fires us up is when readers like Aleksandar Ristin reach out to tell us that they’re finding it valuable for sparking organizational change. So please share your stories. Cheryl Collins oversees our “knowledge capture” activities and is your contact point. Drop her a line.

My best,