Some things just can’t be measured. Like the loss we and so many others are feeling following the shockingly out-of-the-blue passing of the psychologist Dr. Ethan Schafer, 39, who contributed an outstanding essay to Leap of Reason. He contributed far more to children with dyslexia and other learning differences, and their families, whom he dedicated his life to serving.
One of the reasons Ethan’s death is so hard to absorb is that he had such boundless energy. He literally had five different critically important jobs across four different institutions in Northeast Ohio. Mario invited Ethan to contribute to Leap of Reason based on their work together at the Lawrence School, where Ethan served as the director of the school’s Learning Center. Mario quickly came to see him as the epitome of a mission-driven leader who understood the power of assessment for improving the lives of young people and a cross-pollinator who brought the rigor and discipline of his clinical training into the realm of K-12 education.
Thanks to Ethan, Lawrence School adopted a sophisticated, far-from-cookie-cutter approach to assessing the needs and progress of its students. In the words of Lawrence Headmaster Lou Salza, Ethan used assessment “in the relentless pursuit of the truths that are revealed in testing done well, when the examiner pays close attention to the child and knows what his instruments reveal. Ethan was able to cut through the dust and noise and surface the essentials—the salient characteristics and tendencies that made a kid tick. Then he was able convey that understanding to parents in feedback sessions that transformed the dynamics of the parent-child relationship. Ethan valued test results—but he understood they were only one small piece of larger puzzle.”
Ethan was living proof that mission and metrics are not mutually exclusive, but rather inextricably linked. He was relentless about statistics—the reliability and validity of test instruments and the process for administering them to students. He collected data, studied it carefully, and communicated the findings directly and candidly. He was the first to identify where Lawrence excelled with students and the first to help the school identify where it fell short. “He made every one of us better,” Salza said. “He helped us keep kids we might have lost. He made us dig deeper into ourselves and our program. And at the same time he could make sure that a parent who needed a new way of thinking and talking to a son or daughter got a chance to learn and use something new.”
One of the reasons Ethan connected so deeply with families is because he was full of humor (and often uproariously and irreverently funny) and not full of himself. As one parent who worked with Ethan for more than eight years told us, “When Ethan shared advice with the boys they heard him because at heart he was 14—and they were fascinated by an adult who got them so thoroughly and liked things they liked: ‘Breaking Bad,’ University of Michigan football, Axl Rose.”
We miss Ethan terribly, grieve for his young family, and pray that his clinical students and protégés will carry on Ethan’s legacy of compassionate care for great young minds who don’t think alike.
And now for some brief updates about other relentless, compassionate leaders pursuing high performance to improve the lives of those they serve:
- In their SSIR article “The Payoff of Pay-for-Success,” Kash Rangan and Lisa Chase argue that Pay-for-Success models are a powerful new tool but relevant only for a select group of nonprofits that can a) “effectively deliver and measure their social impact” and b) “translate that impact into financial benefits or cost savings that are traceable to [government] budgets.” They cite Roca as a great example of an organization that meets both criteria, and we agree. Roca signed its Pay-for-Success contract with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2014. If Roca is successful in reducing recidivism rates below a set of agreed-upon targets, everyone wins. Massachusetts will save money, investors will make a solid profit, Roca will receive robust revenues it can use to expand, more young men will stay out of prison, communities will be safer, and the nonprofit sector will gain invaluable information on how to make this new funding stream work for nonprofits that meet Rangan and Chase’s criteria.
- You know you’re a philanthropy geek when “How Come This Foundation’s Grantees Love Its Reporting Process So Much?” is click bait. The blog post profiles the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), which earned the best “helpfulness” ratings from its grantees in both of the Grantee Perception Reports it has commissioned from the Center for Effective Philanthropy. Here are some of the reasons its grantees rate IAF so highly: It makes big bets on grassroots organizations (up to two-thirds of an organization’s budget), sticks with these bets much longer than the typical foundation, visits with each serious prospect, and then visits with all awardees every six months. It’s interesting to note that IAF is not a private funder. It’s a U.S. government agency, which many people regard as an unlikely place to look for low bureaucracy and engaged grants management.
- Congratulations to the 15 nonprofits on the road to high performance selected as the next cohort of PropelNext grantees. PropelNext, an initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) and led by Leap Ambassador Lissette Rodriquez, draws upon the great wisdom EMCF has earned over the past two decades in strengthening youth-serving organizations. These new grants represent a partnership between EMCF and four California-based foundations.
- We were impressed by the candor of Ford Foundation President Darren Walker‘s open letter on changes the foundation will be making in response to his plea last year for truthful feedback. Our favorite passage from Walker’s letter came under the “Building healthy organizations” subheading: “Our trustees have authorized us to allocate up to $1 billion for a concerted effort to support stronger, more sustainable, and more durable organizations,” Walker wrote. “Our aim is to ask not, ‘How do we make this grant successful?’ but rather, ‘How do we help make this organization successful?'” We hope other foundations in the multi-billion-dollar club will follow suit.
- We agree wholeheartedly with “Learn Before You Leap,” Leap Ambassador Paul Carttar‘s letter to Congress pushing back on House and Senate attempts to zero out funding for the Social Innovation Fund, which Carttar used to run. “Given the progress to date,” Carttar wrote, “it would be tragic to end this exemplary and productive experiment without capturing the rich value that you so wisely foresaw and that the U.S. taxpayers have already funded.” SIF is not perfect, as Carttar would readily admit. But we believe it’s been a critical part of the federal government’s attempt to play “Moneyball”—that is, to allocate funding based on results and evidence.
- Please join us in congratulating Leap Ambassador David Hunter, whose book Working Hard—and Working Well recently topped 20,000 copies in circulation. David is probably not doing much to track circulation figures right now. He’s off hiking in the Alps, drinking hard cider, and eating great chocolate.
Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:
- “Overcoming the Overhead Myth” webinar; September 2; SSIR
- “Nonprofit Management Institute” annual conference; September 9-11; Stanford, CA; Stanford Social Innovation Review
- “Mission Driven: A Summit for Social Innovation” conference; September 10-11; Austin, TX; Greenlights
- “Summit15: The Future of Social Enterprise” conference; September 16-18; Denver, CO; Social Enterprise Alliance
- “Measurement, Learning, Evaluation Consulting Lab,” Seattle, WA; starts September 27-30; ORS Impact
- “Is Strategic Oversight Neglected by Boards?” seminar; October 12; London, England; New Philanthropy Capital
- “NPC Ignites” annual conference; October 14; London, England; New Philanthropy Capital
- “Develop a Culture of Continuous Learning in Your Organization” webinar; October 20, 2015; PerformWell
Good luck on your journey,
Mario and Lowell