The Right Kind of Tears

On a recent day when snowfall slowed the normal bustle of Midtown Manhattan, Lowell and Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, the dynamic executive director of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, had a leisurely two hours to continue their longstanding dialogue about how funders can pay careful heed–not just lip service–to what their grantees need for improving performance.

As we reported this time last year, EFCT is deeply admired by its grantees for practicing what they preach about supporting their pursuit of high performance. EFCT has taken a “fewer, deeper, longer” approach that allows them to build respectful, trusting relationships with their grantee partners. No funder has ever managed to transcend the inherently unequal power between grantor and grantee. But Rothberg and her small team of listeners and learners have come as close as we’ve ever seen.

Over a lunch of take-out gyros, Lowell asked Rothberg to help him understand the ways the Performance Imperative (PI) and Performance Imperative Organizational Self-Assessment (PIOSA) have supported that journey. “At first some members of our team looked at me like ‘you’re crazy’ when I suggested fully adopting and integrating the PI into every facet of our work and using these tools directly with our partners,” Rothberg says. “Now some of my colleagues who were the most skeptical have become the biggest evangelists. I’ve literally had people start crying in staff meetings, saying, ‘I finally have a language, a definition, and clear tools to help my partners understand what I’m asking for and how we want to help!'”

EFCT is now focusing due-diligence meetings with prospective grantees on individual pillars from the PI and practices from the PIOSA. And for existing grantees, the PI’s principles and PIOSA’s proof points (specific practices that represent manifestations of that principle in action) are at the core of their progress updates for EFCT and other stakeholders.

Instead of asking grantees to submit a typical, compliance-driven end-of-year report, EFCT instead shares a grant reporting framework that helps grantees use the PI and PIOSA to “assess progress, check assumptions, and recalibrate as necessary based on what you’ve learned over the previous period.” Consistent with its emphasis on continuous improvement, EFCT also asks grantees for candid feedback on the utility of the reporting process. On the framework document itself, EFCT shares this language: “Like you, we’re a learning organization; this is a work in progress, and we want it to ultimately serve your needs.”

The PI and PIOSA are also integrated into EFCT’s own Portfolio Dashboard, the centerpiece of the staff’s progress reports to its trustees. In addition to understanding how each grantee partner is progressing with respect to each of the PI’s seven pillars, the trustees can also look across the entire portfolio to identify patterns. For example, the current dashboard shows that EFCT grantee partners are generally doing well with regard to Pillar 3 (“Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies”) and Pillar 5 (“A culture that values learning”) but having more difficulty with Pillar 4 (“Financial health and sustainability”) and Pillar 7 “(External evaluation for mission effectiveness).”

EFCT doesn’t penalize grantee partners when they’re coming up short. Quite the opposite: It’s giving grantee partners extra support, through top experts in the field, to shore up any shaky pillars. “It’s all about improvement over the course of an investment. We’re not comparing one partner to another. We’re looking for patterns so that we can better support our entire portfolio, as well as individual organizations, to get stronger in the pillars where they need additional support. We are now working to have great external support at the ready for every individual pillar,” Rothberg reports.

Rothberg is gratified that the PI and PIOSA “are not just my thing anymore. They’re my team’s thing. And they’re increasingly becoming the operating model for some of our [top] partners, which is the ultimate goal.”

We hope the PI and PIOSA will become your thing as well. If you’re interested, drop us a line. We’d love to help.

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

  • We’re upset but not surprised to read that the Corporation for National and Community Service, including AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund, are on the White House’s chopping block. Keep in mind that it’s the legislative branch that plays the biggest role in determining what gets funding and what doesn’t. So if you have strong opinions, please reach out to your Senators and Representative. For those of you seeking reassurance that public charities have a right to contact your elected officials, please see this guidance from the National Council of Nonprofits. While private foundations have tighter restrictions than charities, those of you from foundations are free to use your personal email accounts and phones to speak out as individual citizens.
  • Our congratulations go out to the organizers of the February 9 TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue, which featured elected officials, nonprofit executives, and foundation CEOs focused on creative solutions to big social challenges. Despite the political turmoil in the grand neoclassical buildings just to the east and to the west, one speaker after another offered a compelling vision for how community problem-solvers can make progress on intractable issues if they’re focused on good data and great leadership. Videos from the event have not yet been posted online. In next month’s Leap Update, we’ll be sure to include links to the talks that addressed the issues that animate this community, including talks by Nancy Roob, Laura Arnold, Molly Baldwin, John Bridgeland, and Jim Shelton. (In the meantime, we highly recommend this brief video by Nancy Roob, speaking in very personal terms about what she learned from working with Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone.)
  • Once again, the brilliant writer and surgeon Atul Gawande has given us great insights from the world of healthcare that can inform the rest of the social sector. In his latest New Yorker piece, “The Heroism of Incremental Care,” Gawande demonstrates that for many conditions, the best medicine by far is the intimate, incremental care that primary care docs provide–not the expensive, one-off surgical procedures that get rewarded handsomely by our healthcare system. “The potential for incremental medicine to improve and save lives … is dramatically at odds with our system’s allocation of rewards,” Gawande writes. Gawande points to this same misalignment in infrastructure spending: “Despite knowing how much cheaper prevention is, we chronically raid funds intended for incremental maintenance and care, and use them to pay for new construction.” We see the same pattern at work in the human services, education, and many other arenas.
  • In his SSIR commentary “A New Paradigm: Toward a User-Centered Social Sector,” our friend and colleague Tris Lumley signals London-based New Philanthropy Capital‘s intention to launch a new philanthropic vehicle. Lumley, who is eager to flip the funding model in our sector “from a market for funding to a market for social impact,” intends to launch a series of pooled funds that will bring together many different types of public and private funders; focus on a specific field, starting with women’s empowerment; leverage technology and user-centered design; and bring promising solutions to scale. We’ll be watching closely!
  • The Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies just announced the launch of Nonprofit Works, a treasure trove of data on nonprofit jobs and wages in the U.S. The site can help you answer questions such as: How many people work for nonprofits in my county? In what fields are those jobs concentrated? How much have nonprofits contributed to job growth? And are nonprofits present where they are most needed?
  • We’ll end with a heartfelt thank you to those who have put Leap of Reason to use in their daily work. Last week, we received a lovely note from Lindenwood University Professor Julie Turner: “I was at our local library where copies of Leap of Reason were made available. It will be the perfect textbook for the program evaluation courses I teach! I’ve had such a hard time finding the right book for these courses.” Please keep the feedback coming–positive or negative.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell