Motherhood, Pumpkin Pie, and Moneyball

Leap of Reason Update: November 2014

These days, Republicans and Democrats could turn a discussion over motherhood or pumpkin pie into a bitter partisan dispute. But appears they might actually be able to agree about the value of “Moneyball.”

If you’re not familiar with the “Moneyball for Government” meme, we recommend you download (for free) the new book of that name, coauthored by a Who’s Who of prominent Rs and Ds who are embracing the concept. The book builds on an influential Atlantic Monthly article in which senior White House aides for George W. Bush and Barack Obama confessed that they “were flabbergasted by how blindly the federal government spends.”

Moneyball for Government was developed by our colleagues at Results for America, and it’s already an Amazon bestseller in its first week. We can easily see why: It’s just right for this political moment. Voters are anxious. They are angry. They don’t want business as usual or spending as usual. In the words of pollster Frank Luntz, “They voted out those who promised to do more in favor of those who said they would do less, but do it better.”

Moneyball is all about doing it better. “In this era of impact-blind, across-the-board budget cuts, we see an opportunity,” Democrat Peter Orszag and Republican Jim Nussle write in the book’s opening chapter. “Like Billy Beane and the A’s, these lean times offer us a chance to reevaluate how we measure success and to shift our focus to what works [for] improving the lives of children and their parents.”

“Just Do It” was a great slogan when Nike came out with it in 1988. But “Do it Better” is where Hillary, Joe, Elizabeth, Jeb, Mitt, Chris, Mike, Ted, Rand, Marco, Rick, and all the other potential contenders ought to be in 2016.

And now we turn to updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • On December 1, the Brookings Institution is coming out with a book that amounts to a great companion volume to Moneyball for Government. The book is Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s Fight for Rigor and Results in Social Policy, by highly respected Republican policy guru Ron Haskins and researcher Greg Margolis. The book gives insiders’ accounts of six domestic policy initiatives that incorporate evidence of effectiveness into the grant-selection process. The authors see these evidence-driven initiatives as a “revolution in the use of social science evidence to guide federal policymaking and the operation of federal grant programs.” (See our events section, below, for information on a live webcast of the book launch on December 1.)
  • In the SSIR blog post “Transforming Government Funding to Drive Impact,” economist and Obama alum Sonal Shah cites evidence that the Moneyball approach is alive and well in countries outside the U.S. For example, she describes how the Australian government gave NGOs incentive to do better at helping job-training participants land jobs. The results? “Between 1995 and 2005 the cost to place each job seeker dropped from $16,000 to $3,500. Employment outcomes for the most disadvantaged seekers improved by 55 percent.”
  • Journalists can create Moneyball momentum by examining the effectiveness of government programs. In the past two weeks, we found two great examples. The New York Times offered a Pulitzer-worthy series “Is the Affordable Care Act Working?” And NPR hit all the Moneyball themes in Shankar Vedantam‘s report “Study Shows Long-Term Benefits Of Welfare Program. “When we debate public policy … we often have no idea what we’re talking about,” said “Morning Edition” co-host Steve Inskeep. “We do not analyze public policy with anywhere close to the scientific rigor with which we analyze the efficacy of drugs or the safety of cars.” We would love to see more publications create ongoing series to examine the efficacy of important government programs.
  • Over the past six months, we’ve been studying up on innovations in the world of predictive analytics, an exciting area that can complement tried-and-true forms of evaluation. Last week, the New York Times article “Risk Model Seen as Reducing Military Suicides” offered an illustration of the potential power of predictive analytics for improving government services. Researchers mined massive databases to pinpoint a small group of factors that clinicians can use to target assistance to those who are at the highest risk of suicide. Along with our admiration for this smart targeting of services, we also offer a caution: When anyone gets labeled “suicidal,” that can have a lasting negative impact on their employment and other life prospects if not handled with great care. This is just one more example of the huge importance of combining good data with great judgment.
  • Kudos to our friend and colleague Victoria Vrana for quarterbacking the Gates Foundation’s $3 million grant to kick off GuideStar’s $10 million capital campaign. As many of you know all too well, large gifts for “nonprofit infrastructure” are very hard to come by. This large gift represents a vote of confidence in Jacob Harold‘s leadership and his visionary plans to build a platform that encourages nonprofits to report on their program outcomes.
  • In a Markets for Good blog post earlier this year, Mario argued that one of the very best places to look for insights on how to nurture a performance culture is healthcare. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s new report High-Impact Leadership: Improve Care, Improve the Health of Populations, and Reduce Costs is a case in point. We particularly liked the section describing five high-impact leadership behaviors: person-centeredness, front-line engagement, relentless focus, transparency, and “boundarilessness.” All of these behaviors translate very well to other realms of the social sector.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:



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.

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