Preparing for the Unknown

Just prior to celebrating the American Thanksgiving with our families, we experienced the professional version of the holiday when we hosted a convening of the Leap Ambassadors Community in DC. We are deeply grateful that so many of the Leap Ambassadors, thinkers and doers committed to high performance, made the time to come together for relationship- and community-building. And although we certainly didn’t plan it this way, the timing of the event allowed us to work together to start to unpack what the earthquake election in the States means for the people and communities we serve.

The first thing we concluded is that the new Administration will indeed bring significant, possibly even radical, change. The second thing we agreed is that it’s impossible at this time to figure out what that change will really look like. Given how many omelets’ worth of egg so many political prognosticators have on their faces after this election, we need to acknowledge that none of us knows what’s in store.

For one thing, we need much more information about whom the President-elect will bring to his inner circle, appoint to key cabinet agencies, and hire for senior roles in vital agencies like OMB. We also need to see how the various House and Senate committees will get realigned. Only then can we begin to have any idea what the terrain will look like once the dust settles. And then there will be unintended and unanticipated factors that could turn what we think we know on its head—for better or for worse. Keep in mind that when George W. Bush took the oath of office, he couldn’t have anticipated that an awful day of tragedy eight months later would shape the rest of his Presidency. And no one could have predicted how the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which exploded four months before Barack Obama’s inauguration, drastically changed the nation and global economy. Don’t rule out the unimaginable.

In the meantime, use this time to be introspective—to assess what your organization is accomplishing, what you’re learning, and how you can take that next leap in effectiveness. It sure can’t hurt to start preparing for whatever might come.

If you run a nonprofit, we suggest you gird yourselves and your organizations for the possibility of major change. Fortify relationships with key agencies, funders, and partners. You don’t want to run to them for the first time when you’re in crisis mode. 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. Where possible, you may want to contain, even reduce, operating expenses and hold off on new capital expenditures—if you can do so without undermining the organizational capacity you need for high performance.

Most of all, talk with your teams openly about the state of affairs. Let them vent their fears and their ideas. Be upfront that things are likely to change and you may have to “turn on a dime” to respond to a crisis or new opportunity and/or defend what is in place. As a leader, it’s imperative to show strength and confidence to those in your organization. Be inspiring, without giving false hope. Demonstrate clearly that you’ve got their backs and that, at your very core, you care about those you serve. Your colleagues will look for conviction not just in your words but in your eyes, body language, and actions.

For those of you who are funders, we strongly encourage you to think different about the timeliness, amounts, and types of support you provide. If valued grantees are hit hard in the short term, be ready to provide “triage” support—in funding and with other assistance. More broadly, think about going well beyond your standard five-percent distributions for one or more years if your high-performance grantees experience dramatic cutbacks in government funding and/or dramatic spikes in demand for services.

And one last important note: Do what you can to bring people together, to help reduce the anger and hateful rhetoric in your community. Stand your ground for what you believe, and don’t shy from protesting efforts that undermine the causes you hold dear. But there’s a lot of dry kindling on the forest floor. Fighting fire with fire right now will leave only scorched earth. So when we’re speaking up for those who have too little voice in our society, let’s express ourselves with civility and keep our eyes on the prize.

And now we turn to updates from around the Leap of Reason community, with an emphasis on the good-news stories we all need more of right now:

  • At a time when charter schools are likely to get a lot of attention from the new Administration, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Leonhart does a great job of crystallizing the evidence about “Schools that Work.” While charters are a mixed bag, we ought to be focusing on “high expectations, high support” schools. These charters, such as the well-known KIPP network, focus the vast majority of their resources on classroom instruction. They have longer hours. They are great about helping teachers learn and improve. According to MIT Professor Joshua Angrist, “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance—class sizes, tracking, new buildings—these schools are producing spectacular gains.”
  • We’re super impressed by Driving Impact, an introspective, well-written report from the UK-based funder Impetus-PEF. Our friend and colleague David Hunter turned us onto the report by saying, “I have never read a single freestanding document that articulates so clearly, so effectively, and indeed so compellingly what it takes to invest in impact.” We agree wholeheartedly and are following up with Impetus-PEF to learn more about their work.
  • The Curious Have Won” is about baseball, specifically GM Theo Epstein‘s analytics-driven approach to turning the Cubs, “a trust fund kid who keeps screwing up,” into an epically great team. But the article holds great lessons for all of us who care about performance. Here’s just one of many great excerpts: “‘Analytics’ doesn’t mean ‘numbers.’ It means cutting through the bullshit. It means having a reason for every decision you make, and that reason being something other than ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done.’ It doesn’t mean eliminating Conventional Wisdom; it means questioning it…. So now it’s time to take the revolution to other fronts.”
  • Matt Forti and Kim Siegel of One Acre Fund, which supports smallholder farmers in six African countries, did something very clever. To understand what types of information had been most valuable for their organization’s learning and improvement, they conducted a comprehensive review of all research from One Acre’s first decade. They discovered that the biggest learning had come from answering four critically important questions. To learn what those questions were, check out “Actionable Measurement: Getting from ‘Prove’ to ‘Improve’.”
  • Close to home for Mario, Cuyahoga Community College is among a cohort of Ohio community colleges that are doing a good job of helping low-income students move toward a degree—a huge economic and social imperative. With support from foundations including Gates and Kresge, the Ohio schools have implemented a comprehensive support model that produced great outcomes at the City University of New York. Based on preliminary findings by MDRC, it looks like the Ohio schools are on track to produce similar “The results show that [the program] made an immediate impact on student success and completion,” says Lisa Williams, vice president of learning and engagement at Cuyahoga Community College. “This sort of program can be life-changing for students.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

  • From Evidence to Action” conference; December 14-15; Washington, DC; Corporation for National and Community Service

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell