Slow on the Uptake


Since we released Leap of Reason, we’ve studied what it might take to affect a profound mindshift in the social sector. It kills us that our sector doesn’t invest in cultivating great leadership and building truly great organizations with high-performance cultures. We know that if our sector is to make more than incremental progress, we simply must find a way to inspire and support high performance and make it the norm, rather than a blue-moon rarity.

So what does it take to affect a mindshift? If you want a sophisticated (if humbling) answer, we highly recommend Atul Gawande’s latest article in The New Yorker. Gawande, a Harvard surgeon, dissects four different efforts to change norms, drawing a clear distinction between “fast ideas” and “slow ideas.”

The use of anesthesia during surgery was the quintessential fast idea. Less than a year after a Boston surgeon published a groundbreaking 1846 paper on “insensibility produced by inhalation,” surgeons around the world had begun using ether during operations. Despite the fact that Samuel Morse’s telegraph was in its infancy and Alexander Graham Bell’s phone was not even on the drawing board, the anesthesia innovation spread faster than a new iPhone release.

Twenty years after anesthesia was invented, the Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister pioneered an even more significant medical innovation: the use of antiseptics to keep wounds from getting infected. Ironically, combatting infection was not an infectious idea. Why? Infection was a largely invisible problem; its effects showed up after patients left their surgeons’ care. And unlike anesthesia, which immediately made doctors’ lives better, antiseptics required sacrifice; the carbolic acid used to sterilize equipment burned doctors’ hands. Sterile conditions in operating rooms was so slow to take off that hand washing was still not standard procedure at America’s most prestigious hospitals even two decades after Lister’s discovery.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see that the prescription of high performance is not going to spread like anesthesia did. Performance is invisible to many funders and requires sacrifice and pain. Let’s face facts: High performance is a slow idea.

So what can we do to advance this slow idea? Here’s the teaser version of Gawande’s core insight: Changing norms is not about increasing awareness, marshaling strong evidence, inventing clever incentives, or harnessing fancy technology. “People talking to people is still how the world’s standards change,” Gawande writes.

Mario will pick up on these themes in a big way in his keynote address at the December “After the Leap” conference. The keynote, “How to Build a Movement,” will address how we can leverage the power of people and trusted relationships for moving hearts and minds.

In fact, we’re deeply engaged right now with the PerformWell brain trust in putting the finishing polish on the conference. If you’re looking for insights into how you can cultivate a performance culture and want to learn from top thought leaders and practitioners in the field, we’d love for you to join us! You’ll have a chance to meet and network with keynoters like former Domestic Policy Advisors Melody Barnes and John Bridgeland (“The Necessity of Performance Management in Social Services”), and Edna McConnell Clark Foundation CEO Nancy Roob (“Making Effectiveness a Grantmaking Strategy”). In addition, you can meet with the leaders of 20 of the country’s highest-performing nonprofits and government agencies, who will be showcasing in very concrete ways how they track and report their outcomes. The “After the Leap” conference will take place at the Capital Hilton in DC on December 3 and 4. Don’t wait until your fall books up completely. Sign up today.

In the meantime, here are brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • In Reports and Lessons from the First 10 Years, Bill Ryan and Barbara Taylor have done a great job of describing the ways the outstanding Edna McConnell Clark Foundation supports its grantees to improve their performance and deepen their impact. If you only have a few minutes, please at least check out pages 5 and 6, which present Clark’s elegant approach to assessing its own progress—and its remarkable results.
  • Congratulations are also in order to the very same Bill Ryan for his evaluation of another forward-thinking funder’s innovative support for high-performance leadership. In his 5-Year Evaluation of the Flexible Leadership Awards, Ryan explains that the Haas Jr. Fund’s awards, which provided multi-year support to 14 grantees, are “based on the belief that stronger leadership leads to improved performance for nonprofits—and, in turn, greater impact.” The awards were flexible, “leaving to grantees the job of finding [leadership supports] that were in tune with their needs, cultures and values”—from individual coaching to board development to strategic planning. Ryan concludes that the awardees “were highly successful in advanc­ing their leadership development goals” and “it’s reasonable to conclude that the leadership gains in all probability [drove] the mission gains” the organizations achieved.
  • Is your nonprofit undergoing rapid change or growth? Are you concerned that leadership and talent challenges will frustrate your ambitious goals? Check outTalent Initiative from AchieveMission, an organization created through a collaboration of Taproot Foundation, Commongood Careers, and the Kellogg Foundation. The program, designed for mid- to large-sized organizations, is an intense six-month engagement that integrates consulting, training, coaching, and change management. Applications for the Winter 2013 program, due November 8, are available here.
  • Social Solutions CEO Steve Butz is inviting nominations for this year’s Veronica Awards, named in honor of his mother and given out every year by a nonprofit organization he created five years ago. The awards honor direct service workers who have built transformational relationships with their clients and are clearly outperforming their peers. “As you can imagine, there is a very tough, data intensive criteria for applying for a Veronica Award,” Steve writes. “But we have seen nominations for the awards grow from 17 in our first year to over 250 last year!” More information about the Veronica Awards, and how to apply or nominate someone, can be found here.
  • Charity Navigator (CN) is making commendable progress in its effort to provide donors with insights that go beyond information on finances and transparency. CN has now taken the first step toward including a Results Reporting dimension by gathering data on all 227 charities in the field of Children’s and Family Services. The bad news: “The state of the nonprofit sector is exactly what our research indicated,” Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger tells the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “The vast number of nonprofits do not report in a meaningful way on their results.”
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy, which is increasingly turning its comparative data into practical, actionable guidance for foundations, recently published a reporton the areas in which nonprofits are dying for help (and often seeing their requests fall on deaf ears). Nonprofit leaders reported that two of their biggest unmet needs are support for using technology to improve their effectiveness and support for developing their leadership skills.
  • The Virginia Community Action Partnership (VACAP) has continued to help its nonprofit and local government members develop their ability to manage to outcomes. VACAP Executive Director Jim Schuyler has been using David Hunter’sWorking Hard—and Working Well as a core text in basic and advanced outcomes workshops presented by faculty at George Mason University. VACAP is now exploring the idea of bringing together university faculty from other regions of the country to assist agencies in outcomes management in states other than Virginia.
  • We received a lovely report from Will Berkovitz, the new head of the innovative Jewish Family Services Seattle. Rabbi Will has asked his entire staff and board to read Leap of Reason in advance of strategic planning. “Leap of Reason perfectly articulates the direction I am intending to take JFS Seattle,” Will writes. “You have helped make sure we are all on the same boat rowing in the same direction. You have played an important role in serving the needs of our clients!”
  • The U.S. Department of Education and its Institute of Education Sciences must have been delighted with the New York Times’s recent coverage of their efforts to conduct randomized controlled trials of what works—and what doesn’t—across many different approaches to improving student outcomes. In “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education,” veteran science reporter Gina Kolata reports, “The Institute of Education Sciences has supported 175 randomized studies…. Among the findings are that one popular math textbook was demonstrably superior to three competitors, and that a highly touted computer-aided math-instruction program had no effect on how much students learned.” If you’re an educator, check out the Institute’s What Works Clearinghouse. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a harbinger of the kind of valuable decision-making tools that are starting to emerge.
  • Thanks to our colleague Rick Wartzman at the Drucker Institute, we’ve begun reading Gatsby in LA, a blog by Ellie Herman, a writer turned high school English teacher. Herman is taking a year off to watch good teachers in action. Why? So she can get better at teaching. Her posts are provocative, honest, and reflective of the tension between “all great instruction looks alike” and “great teachers are great in large part because of their individual human qualities.” In our minds it’s not an “either/or” discussion, and it’s time to bring into the discussion voices like the teachers that Herman profiles.

Events for Raising Performance:

Here’s hoping your fall is off to a great start. And thanks for the role you’re playing in sharing the slow but powerful idea that high performance is the key prerequisite for making meaningful progress on our society’s biggest challenges.

Our best,
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is Chairman of the Morino Institute and Venture Philanthropy Partnersand author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president ofCascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

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