Tag Archives: impact

The ongoing revolution in philanthropy: An open-ended reading list

 

 

I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague about what I perceive to be a revolution in progress.  Grant makers and nonprofit professionals are now talking openly about some very painful (and inter-related) issues in philanthropy, such as

  • The lack of inclusion and equity in philanthropy.
  • The difficult power dynamics among grantors and grantees.
  • The origins of some foundations’ wealth, which in some cases includes slavery and other forms of exploitation.
  • The tendency of philanthropic professionals, big donors, and other relatively privileged people to assume that they know what is best for the people who are directly affected by the problems that need to be addressed.

It is really inspiring to see philanthropic and nonprofit professional engaging in public conversations about these challenges, and even more inspiring to see them taking action to create positive changes.  I offered to send my friend and colleague a list of key articles and books about this revolution, and it now occurs to me that I can share this list with everyone who is interested.  Here it is:

Books:

Articles, reports, podcasts, and videos:

I’d like to point out that Vu Le, a few of whose publications are listed above, is a revolution in his own right.  He uses his blog, Nonprofit AF, to analyze overlapping issues such as philanthropy, justice, inclusion, power dynamics, racial equity, nonprofit leadership, outcomes reporting, and financial sustainability. And as a bonus, he’s very funny as well.

Tools:

 

This is an open-ended list. I plan to add more items, and I invite you to use the form below to let me know of anything that I have missed. I always have more lessons to learn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’ve learned from working with mission-based organizations

Keep calm and be a unicorn

 

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. You need to make sure that your mission, operations, and desired outcomes are aligned with each other.
  2. Movements for equity, inclusion, and belonging have the potential to revolutionize both mission-based organizations and philanthropy.
  3. Carefully tailored one-to-one desk-side coaching usually increases a worker’s effectiveness much more quickly than classroom training.
  4. The nonprofit/philanthropic sector in Massachusetts is different from the analogous sector in any other state in the U.S.A.
  5. Poverty is an insufficient reward for devoting one’s professional life to a nonprofit organization.
  6. In a mission-based organization, many problems that initially appear to be about information and communication technology are really about organizational culture, knowledge management, or a combination of organizational culture and knowledge management.
  7. Age discrimination is alive and well in mission-based organizations.
  8. It makes much more sense to aim to run a nonprofit organization like a highly effective organization, rather than to aim to run it like a business. There’s nothing inherently superior (or inferior) about businesses.
  9. Every human being is eligible to help others and to be helped by others; moreover, it’s a mistake to stigmatize being helped by others.
  10. Bringing token members of various demographic minorities into the building isn’t enough; real power means being at the table when crucial information is disseminated and crucial decisions are made.
  11. When you decide to solve a problem, you need help from the people who are deeply affected by the problem in order to determine:
  • the real nature of the problem
  • the possible solutions
  • a clear and specific idea of what success in solving the problem would look like

I invite you to leave comments about what lessons you’ve learned from working with mission-based organizations!

Or, if you prefer to send me a private message, you can do so by using the form shown below:

 

 

In search of my next vocation!

"Excelsior!" Cartoon by James Thurber

“Excelsior!”   (Cartoon by James Thurber)

After five very productive years at Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), I am now looking for my next professional challenge. I’m ready for a career shift! I’ve notified the leadership at TNB, so this is not a covert search.

If you know about any job opportunities at organizations that need someone with my skill set, I’d love to hear about them. In my next job, I’d like to focus on some or all of the following:

  • Weaving networks among nonprofit organizations in order to build collaboration, peer learning, and communities of practice.
  • Building the capacity of philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to achieve and document their desired outcomes.
  • Fostering equity, inclusion, social justice, and corporate social responsibility.
  • Aiding philanthropic and nonprofit organizations in seamlessly matching resources with needs.
  • Establishing best practices in the strategic use of information and communication technologies among mission-based organizations.
  • Facilitating candid dialogue and successful collaborations between grantmakers and grantees.

I invite you to peruse my LinkedIn profile and my résumé, and to get in touch with me about any contacts or opportunities that you’d like to suggest.

Please help me find new ways to serve organizations and individuals who are working to make the world a better place!

Deborah Elizabeth Finn – résumé – June 2018

 

 

 

 

How grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients can do great things together with data and evaluation

This is not actually a photo from the dialogue series. We refrained from taking photos, because we wanted to foster an atmosphere of candor and comfort as grantors and grantees engaged in conversation about a difficult topic. However, it is a favorite photo from another recent Tech Networks of Boston event.

 

Oh, my!  It took Tech Networks of Networks almost two years to organize and implement a series of candid dialogues about data and evaluation for grantors and nonprofit grantees, and now it’s complete.  The process was a collaboration in itself, with TSNE MissionWorks, and Essential Partners serving as co-hosts. An advisory group and planning group gave crucial input about the strategy and tactics for this event.

What you see here are a few notes that reflect my individual experience. In this article, I am not speaking on behalf of any organization or individual.

As far as I can ascertain, this series was the first in which grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients came together in equal numbers and met as peers for reflective structured dialogue. World class facilitation and guidance was provided by Essential Partners, with the revered Dave Joseph serving as facilitator-in-chief.

Here’s how I’d characterize the three sessions:

  • June 2017:  Let’s get oriented. What is the heart of the matter for grantors and grantees?
  • September 2017:  You know, we really need to address the imbalance of power in the grantor/grantee relationship.
  • January 2018:  Ok, can we agree on some best practices how to address this as grantors and grantees? Why, yes. We can.

The plan is to make the recommendations that came out of the final dialogue publicly available online, to provide a starting point for a regional or even national conversation about data and evaluation.

Meanwhile, I’d like to offer my own recommendations.  Mine are based on what I learned during the dialogue series, and also on untold numbers of public and private conversations on the topic.

 

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My Recommendations

 

Funders can help by: 

  • Understanding that nonprofits perceive funders as having not just money but also much more power.
  • Asking nonprofits to define their goals, their desired outcomes, and their quantitative measures of success – rather than telling them what these should be.
  • Factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
  • Understanding the real cost in dollars to grantees who provide the data reporting and evaluation that you request.  These dollar amounts might be for staff time, technology, training, an external consultant, or even for office supplies.
  • Providing financial support for any data or evaluation that the funder needs –  especially if the nonprofit does not have an internal need for that data or evaluation.    Items to support might include staff time, technology, training, or retaining an external consultant with the necessary skill set.
  • Putting an emphasis on listening.

 

Nonprofits can help by: 

  • Engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and sharing this information with funders.
  • Understanding that grant makers are motivated to see nonprofit grant recipients succeed.
  • Understanding that grant makers are often under pressure from donors and their boards to deliver a portfolio of outcomes.
  • Integrating the use of data and evaluation into most areas of operation – this means building skills in data and evaluation across the entire organization.
  • Gathering with other nonprofits that have similar desired outcomes and comparing notes on failures and best practices.
  • Fostering a data-friendly, continuous learning culture within nonprofit organizations.

 

Both groups can help by: 

  • Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.
  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
  • Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
  • Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
  • Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.
  • Making “I don’t know” an acceptable response to a question.
  • Measuring what you really value, rather than simply valuing what you can easily measure.
  • Working toward useful standards of measurement.  Not all programs and outcomes are identical, but very few are entirely sui generis.
  • Sharing responsibility for building the relationship.
  • Speaking with each other on a regular basis.
  • Studying (and implementing) community-based participatory research methods.

 

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And now, because I can insert a poll here, I’m going to.

 

 

 

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And now, because I can insert a contact form here, I’m going to.  Please feel free to let me know if you’re interested in being part of a regional or national conversation about how grantors and grantees can move forward and work constructively with data and evaluation.

 

 

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Creative Commons License
Some rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

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My ever expanding theory of change for nonprofit data and evaluation

Workforce development for the nonprofit tech professionals of the future: It will be a consortium, not a building with a dome!

We don't need an edifice; we need a consortium!

 

It’s been about a year and a half since I starting agitating for a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, an initiative that will kick off by training the nonprofit data analysts of the future.

The concept has morphed and evolved a great deal in that time, thanks to all the great input from Massachusetts stakeholders, but also from a team of ELP fellows from the Center for Collaborative Leadership.

One thing that is quite clear is that there is no need to create a new institution, or raise up a building with a splendid dome.  (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology can rest easy, without fear of competition, or brand encroachment.)  I believe that all of the necessary institutions exist already here in the Bay State.  What is needed is a consortium that can knit them together for this purpose, some funding, and some candidates.

It’s a pipeline, or perhaps a career ladder that the consortium needs to build – not an edifice.  Although I love the splendid domes of MIT, we can simply admire them, and hope that eventually some of the people who work and study under those domes will become part of the consortium.

Here’s what I think we need:

  1.  Allies from workforce development, job readiness, and college readiness programs.  These are the folks who will raise awareness of the coming need for technology professionals who can provide data analysis and other data services to nonprofits, and guide them to the next rung of the career ladder. Examples include Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), Shriver Job Corps, International Institute of New England, JFYnet, Jobs For the Future, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, SkillWorks, Boston PIC, YearUp, and Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
  2. Allies who provide relevant training and education to candidates who aspire to careers in data services and data analytics for nonprofits.  Examples include Bunker Hill Community College and Tech Foundry.
  3. An organization that is able to place, mentor, and coach candidates in entry level data services positions at local nonprofit organizations.  That’s TNB Labs.  These entry level workers will be known as “data support analysts,” or DSAs.
  4. Allies from local nonprofit organizations who are willing to host (and pay for the services of) a DSA for a period of one or two years.  TNB Labs will be the official employer of these workers, providing them with a salary, benefits, a modest sum for further professional development, coaching, and mentoring.  The DSAs will be working on site at the nonprofit organizations and dedicating themselves to tasks assigned by the nonprofits.  Examples of distinguished nonprofits that could play this role are Community Servings, Saint Francis House, Community Catalyst, Health Care For All, Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Perkins School, City Year, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Cambridge Health Alliance, Family Service of Greater Boston, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Greater Boston Food Bank, the Boston Foundation, AIDS Action Committee, and the Home for Little Wanderers.  (Not that they’ve actually signed on for this, but that they would be great members of this consortium.)

At the conclusion of the one or two year placement at a nonprofit organization, I think that any of the following outcomes would count as a win:

  • The host nonprofit hires the DSA (with a raise and a promotion) as a long term regular employee.
  • The DSA lands a job providing data services at another nonprofit organization.
  • The DSA lands a job in a different field or sector that is congruent with his/her/their career aspirations.
  • The DSA is able to apply to a four-year degree program, transferring course credits, on the job experience, two-year degrees, or certifications that he/she/they have earned.

The latter scenario – of advancing in higher education – brings us to the final category of allies needed for our consortium.  The best example of this kind of ally is UMass-Boston, which has programs in related areas, such as:

In addition, our consortium has a great ally in an individual UMass-Boston faculty member, Michael Johnson, whose research focus is decision science for community-based organizations.  He has expressed a generous desire to be a mentor to community college students in this career ladder, and to encourage those who are qualified to apply to be Ph.D. students in this field.

And that’s just UMass-Boston!  I’m not as familiar with the offerings of other distinguished colleges and universities in the area, but the Boston University program in nonprofit management and leadership , the Nonprofit Leadership program at Wheelock, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice at Tufts come to mind immediately as potential allies.

So here we are. The need is there for data service providers who can serve the missions, programs, and operations of nonprofit organizations.  If we can weave all these allies together into a network, we can meet these needs.

All that we require is:

  • Allies who are ready, willing, and able to pitch in.
  • Public awareness that this career ladder is available.
  • Funding to assist candidates cannot afford tuition for college coursework and other forms of training.
  • Funding to assist nonprofits that would like to host a data service analyst from this program, but lack the (modest) funding to support one.

Let’s do this!

Every nonprofit needs a theory of change for its technology. . .and for its evaluation process

if then

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life (thus far) thinking about the missions of nonprofit organizations, and about information/communication technologies for nonprofits.

In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to talk about the importance of a “theory of change” for nonprofits.  This is merely a way of underlining the importance of making an explicit statement about the causal relationship between what a nonprofit organization does and the impact that it has promised to deliver.  I applaud this!  It’s crucial to say, “if we take all of the following resources, and do all of the following actions, then we will get all of the following results.”  An organization that lacks the capacity to marshal those resources and take those actions needs to reconsider, because it is on track to fail. If its capacity is not aligned with its commitment, it should acquire the resources or change its commitment to results.  Of course, it some cases, it will merely need to revise its theory of change.  In any case, it will have to work backward from its mission, and understand how each component contributes to achieving it.

This kind of thinking has lead to a lot of conversations (and a lot of anxiety) in the nonprofit sector about performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, and impact assessment.

I’d love to have some of this conversation focus on the information/communication technologies that nonprofit organizations are using.  In other word, it’s time to be explicit about a theory of change that explains in detail how every component of the technology an organization uses contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver a specific kind of social, cultural, or environmental impact.

Likewise, I’d love to have the conversation address the ways in which the efforts of a nonprofit organization’s performance measurement, outcomes management, evaluation, or impact assessment team contributes (directly or indirectly) to its ability to deliver the kind of impact that it promised its stakeholders.

 

 

Sunlighting

sunlighting.jpg

So now we have launched TNB Labs, and all sorts of queries are starting to come in – not just from folks who needs services, but also from folks who want to be part of our circle of mavens who provide services.

From the beginning, we have thought of TNB Labs as a lean organization, nurturing a community of practice that would provide fractional resources to nonprofits that need data and evaluation services.

What follow here are some personal reflections on mobilizing a community of practice.  These are free associations, based on a recent conversation with Susan Labandibar.  Please don’t regard these ideas as official TNB Labs policy, but as an invitation to engage in your own free associations.

Let’s talk about a hypothetical scenario.

Let’s say that you are a full time employee of a medium-size nonprofit organization.  Your job title is “data analyst.” By temperament and training, you are a data geek, and you are proud of using your powers for good.   You are passionate about the importance of your work, because it helps your organization document the ways in which it is making the world a better place, while also identifying ways that it could do even better.

However, there are a few things that aren’t perfect about your job:

1) You’re the only person with any kind information technology training at your organization.

1a) This means that you don’t really have people with whom you can regularly compare notes about the intersection of technology and the nonprofit sector.

1b) It also means that you are asked to do all sorts of tasks that aren’t in your areas of interest or expertise, because you are reputed to “know all about computers.”  In vain, you do your best to explain that social media campaigns require a different skill set from data analysis, even though there could be some overlap.

2) You’re interested in new challenges, such as becoming an evaluation specialist.  However, you don’t want to quit your job at a nonprofit organization that you love, even though you don’t see opportunities opening up there.

3) You’d like to get some experience with the challenges at other nonprofits, but you don’t really want to moonlight, because that implies doing something underhanded, without the knowledge of your home organization.

How about sunlighting?  (Not to be confused with the Sunlight Foundation, which is a great and entirely unrelated organization with a great and entirely different mission.)

Here’s how sunlighting might work for you:

1) You join the TNB Labs Community of Practice, which has regular meetings for peer support and professional development.

2) You work with TNB Labs and your home organization to create a three-cornered agreement, so that a certain percentage of your time is devoted to assignments from TNB Labs to provide services at other nonprofits.  (That’s what we mean by “fractional resources.”)  It’s all done in an ethical and above-board manner.  TNB Labs takes responsibility for finding assignments, invoicing the client organizations, and paying you.  It might even represent a cost saving for your home organization; they can hire an entry level person at a lower rate to do some of your routine tasks.  It will mean less boredom for you, and valuable on-the-job experience for the entry level person.

3) In accordance with nonprofit client demand and your preferences, your potential TNB Labs assignments will vary.  They might involve 2 hours or 200 hours of time for a one time-project, or they might involve an hour or a day every week for three years.

4) TNB Labs’ share will be an administrative fee.  This will be an excellent value for the client nonprofit, because they can get a fraction of the time of a first-rate professional (that’s you) without having to add another full time position to their payroll for a set of tasks that doesn’t require a full time person.

If you’re a nonprofit data analyst, would you consider this scenario?

If you’re an executive at a nonprofit organization that needs data analysis or evaluation services, would you consider going to TNB Labs for help from a member of our community of practice?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TNB Labs has launched, and its first priority is data services for nonprofits!

tnb labs logo july 2016

 

Greg Palmer and I are very pleased to announce the launch of TNB Labs, a company dedicated to providing nonprofit organizations with high quality data services and program management.  TNB Labs works with organizations to audit and assess data management methodology, develop and implement data standards, and provide structural oversight through data governance to organizations of all sizes.

Through our partnership with Tech Networks of Boston, we have had a unique opportunity to listen to hundreds of stakeholders at TNB’s Roundtables uncover a need to elevate the role of data in nonprofit organizations.  TNB Labs is focused on improving the capacity of nonprofit organizations at every stage of the outcome management process.

The immediate priorities of TNB Labs are:

1) Providing Master Data Management (MDM) services to nonprofit organizations in support of their missions, focusing on data governance, data quality, data modeling, data visualizations, and program evaluation.

2) Providing workforce program management for Desktop Support Technicians (DST), Data Support Analysts (DSA), and Data Analytics/Data Evaluation entry level professionals.

3) Managing the TNB Roundtable series, which is now jointly owned by Tech Networks of Boston and TNB Labs.

TNB Labs is led by Greg Palmer (chief executive officer), and Deborah Elizabeth Finn (chief strategic officer).  The other co-founders are Bob Master (former CEO of Commonwealth Care Alliance) and Susan Labandibar (founder of Tech Networks of Boston).

TNB Labs is here to solve your problems.  Please contact us with any questions and comments you have about TNB Labs, or to learn more about data management or program management services that might be helpful to your organization.

Best regards from Deborah and Greg

Greg Palmer
gpalmer@tnblabs.org
508.861.4535

Deborah Elizabeth Finn
definn@tnblabs.org
617.504.8188

TNB Labs, LLC
PO Box 2073
Framingham, MA 01703
www.tnblabs.org

 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology: Let’s Do This!

Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology

 

We need a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, and I can tell you what degree program we need to establish first:  Bachelor of Nonprofit Data.

The inspiration for this comes from many conversations with many people, but I’d especially like to credit Susan Labandibar, Julia Gittleman, and Laura Beals for pointing out, in their different ways, that one of the most pressing real-life challenges in nonprofit technology today is finding people who can bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team (on one hand) and the information systems team (on the other hand) at a nonprofit organization.

Not that I’m a professional full-time data analyst myself, but if I were, I’d find the numbers, and start doing the math:

  • How many brilliant computer scientists are graduating right here in Massachusetts every year from our best high schools, colleges, and universities?
  • Of those graduates, what percentage have strong skills in database design, database development, database management, or data analysis?
  • Of those who have strong data skills, what percentage would be eager to use their geek skills for good, if they were offered an attractive career ladder?

That’s our applicant pool for the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology.  (Or MINT, if you prefer.)

Now, let’s figure out the absolute minimum of additional knowledge that these computer science graduates would need in order to be the kind of data analysts who could bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team and the information systems team  at a nonprofit:

  • Outcomes measurement
  • Outcomes management
  • Impact assessment
  • Evaluation
  • Social research methods
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational cultures of nonprofits
  • Nonprofit operations
  • Organizational cultures of philanthropic foundations

That’s our basic curriculum.

If we want to expand the curriculum beyond the basics, we can add these elective subjects:

  • Nonprofit budgeting
  • Group dynamics
  • Ethics
  • Etiquette
  • Negotiation
  • Project management
  • Appreciative inquiry
  • Meeting facilitation

All of these electives would pave the way for other degree programs, in which they would also be extremely useful:

  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Systems Engineering
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Web Development
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Help Desk Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Hands On Tech Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Social Media

I already have my eye on some great local colleagues who could be the faculty for the Bachelor of Nonprofit Data program.  In addition to Susan, Julia, and Laura, I’d want to recruit these folks:

Please note that three members of the TNB team top the list of potential faculty members.  Why?  Because I work there, and because TNB has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of developing the careers of 1,000 technology professionals. This undertaking would be very congruent with its vision!

However, setting up the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology must be a collaborative effort.  It will take a strong network of colleagues and friends to make this happen.

Do you think that this is needed?  Do you think my plan needs a lot of work?  Do you have any ideas or resources that you’d like to suggest?  Please feel free to use the comments section here to share your thoughts.

“Accidental Evaluator” is the new “Accidental Techie.” I’m just saying.

laura beals

Laura Beals, who is director of evaluation at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Boston, published a great article on the NTEN blog earlier this month, called “Are You an ‘Accidental Evaluator?’ “

I think that this is a great question to ask, because many nonprofit professionals currently managing program evaluation within small nonprofits are indeed coming to the task with less preparation than they would like.  Perhaps they are program directors, or grant writers, or chief financial officers, or database administrators.  And now the pressure is on them to come up with numbers that show that their organizations are actually creating the positive change in the world that the organization has promised to deliver.

In fact, many of today’s accidental evaluators at nonprofits are in the same position that accidental techies were ten or fifteen years ago.

I respectfully disagree with those of my esteemed colleagues who want to help nonprofit professionals by reassuring them that they don’t have to meet the standards of academic peer reviewed journals when they use data to tell their stories.  While it’s true that the level of rigor required for nonprofit programmatic evaluation is much less strict, it’s not enough to point this out and encourage nonprofit professionals to relax.  Those nonprofit professionals are running organizations with a special legal status that make them answerable to the public and responsible for contributing to the common good.  This is a serious ethical obligation.

From my point of view, those of us who understand the importance of evaluation in the nonprofit sector should be working to deliver appropriate forms of professional development to “accidental evaluators,” just as NTEN has labored mightily to deliver professional development to “accidental techies.”

In fact, NTEN itself is in a very good position to assist “accidental evaluators,” because many technology topics are intimately tied up with nonprofit evaluation, such as database development, data integration, and data visualization. Indeed, if you look at some the companion articles on the NTEN blog, you’ll see that this effort is underway:

I’m pleased to say that here in Boston we’re actively addressing this.  For example, Laura and her wonderful JF&CS colleague Noah Schectman recently led a meeting of local nonprofit professionals who are seeking to improve their skills in bridging between evaluation and technology.  A pivotal moment at this session came when the executive director of a tiny nonprofit raised her hand and asked Noah, “Will you be my best friend?”  Noah’s face lit up, and he told her that he would.  That’s the kind of reassurance that we should be offering nonprofit professionals who feel overwhelmed; we should be telling them that support and training are on the way.

 

Adventures in failure (and ritual studies): The “joyful funeral”

Beth Kanter and I are not twins who were separated at birth, but we have some things in common.

So perhaps if we were twins, I wouldn’t be the evil twin (I hope) but the lagging twin.  She’s succeeding at writing in a very engaging and helpful way about failure, and I am definitely benefiting from that.  Thinking about how to acknowledge failure flows very naturally from my current absorption in outcomes management for nonprofit organizations.

Beth recently published a blog article on “Six Ways Nonprofits Learn from Affordable Losses or Little Bets to Improve Impact” that appealed to me greatly, mostly because some the practices described have a ritual component.

I was especially excited when I saw that Beth had included the “Joyful Funeral” custom that was created by Moms Rising.  I had heard rumors of this ritual in nonprofit management circles, but couldn’t remember the details.  Fortunately, Beth’s article includes a cool video, in which she interviews Ashley Boyd about what it really entails.

Now, unlike Beth, I studied sociology of religion as a graduate student, and have a longstanding interest in ritual studies.  Regardless of one’s religious beliefs and affiliation – or lack thereof – it’s easy to see that ritual often has great power in assisting human communities that are confronted by change or loss.

Let’s look at the characteristic stages of a “rite of passage:”

  • Detachment or withdrawal from the status quo
  • Transition
  • Reincorporation into the social group

Likewise, consider a purification ritual, in which the transition in question is from an “unclean” to a “clean” state.

I propose that we think of a joyful funeral as a combination of passage and purification.  The individual or organization has an opportunity to mark the change (which may also be a loss) from a viable initiative to a failure, to acknowledge shortcomings, to mourn, to be supported by the community, and to achieve closure, and to begin the next stage of life.

Many people are left cold by any kind of ritual, and others are put off by the links between elaborate ritual and religious institutions from which they are alienated.  For that reason, I would never argue that a joyful funeral (or any of the other celebrations of failure that Beth describes) should be attempted by everyone.  But for many of us, a ritual can be a comfort, especially if it doesn’t demand that we buy into a dogma or denomination.  A ritual can also be goofy and fun.

I like the idea of building laughter without humiliation into a ritual acknowledgement of failure. It’s less scary and less punitive than a solemn occasion, and better for strengthening ties among the team and making it fun to learn from mistakes.  For this reason, I recommend the “DoSomething PinkBoa FailFest” to beginners in the art of failing and moving on.


Bonus item:  a joke for people who take ritual a little too seriously.

Q:  What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

A:  You can negotiate with a terrorist.


 

“We count our successes in lives”

Brent James

Brent James is one of my new heroes.  He’s a physician, a researcher, and the chief quality officer of Intermountain Healthcare’s Institute for Health Care Delivery Research.

We had a very inspiring telephone conversation this afternoon, about whether the lessons learned from evidence-based medicine could be applied to nonprofits that are seeking to manage their outcomes.  We also swapped some stories and jokes about the ongoing struggle to document a causal relationship between what a health care organization (or a social service agency, or an arts group, or an environmental coalition, for that matter) does and what the organization’s stated aims are.  In fact, documenting that an organization is doing more good than harm, and less harm than doing nothing at all, continues to be a perplexing problem.  The truth may be less than obvious – in fact, it may be completely counter-intuitive.

In this phone conversation, we also waded into deep epistemological waters, reflecting on how we know we have succeeded, and also on the disturbing gap between efficacy and effectiveness.

It’s not merely a philosophical challenge, but a political one, to understand where the power lies to define success and to set the standards of proof.

I doubt that this is what William James (no relation to Brent, as far as I know) had in mind when he referred to success as “the bitch-goddess,” but there’s no doubt that defining, measuring, and reporting on one’s programmatic success is a bitch for any nonprofit professional with intellectual and professional integrity.  It’s both difficult and urgent.

What particularly struck me during my conversation with Brent was his remark about Intermountain Healthcare:

“We count our successes in lives.”

On the surface, that approach to counting successes seems simple and dramatic.  The lives of patients are on the line.  They either live or die, with the help of Intermountain Healthcare.  But it’s really a very intricate question, once we start asking whether Intermountain’s contribution is a positive one, enabling the patients to live the lives and die the deaths that are congruent with their wishes and values.

These questions are very poignant for me, and not just because I’m cancer patient myself, and not just because yesterday I attended the funeral of a revered colleague and friend who died very unexpectedly.  These questions hit me where I live professionally as well, because earlier this week, I met with the staff of a fantastic nonprofit that is striving to do programmatic outcomes measurement, and is faced with questions about how to define success in a way that can be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed.  Their mission states that they will help their clients excel in a specific industry and in their personal lives.  They have a coherent theory of change, and virtually all of their criteria of professional and personal success are quantifiable.  Their goals are bold but not vague. (This is a dream organization for anyone interested in outcomes management, not to mention that the staff members are smart and charming.)  However, it’s not entirely clear yet whether the goals that add up to success for each client are determined solely by the staff or by the client or some combination thereof.  I see it as a huge issue, not just on an operational level, but on a philosophical one; it’s the difference between self-determination and paternalism.  I applaud this organization’s staff for their willingness to explore the question.

When Brent talked about counting successes in terms of lives, I thought about this nonprofit organization, which defines its mission in terms of professional and personal success for its clients.  The staff members of that organization, like so many nonprofit professionals, are ultimately counting their successes in lives, though perhaps not as obviously as health care providers do.  Surgeons receive high pay and prestige for keeping cancer patients alive and well – for the most part, they fully deserve it.  But let’s also count the successes of the organization that helps a substantial number of people win jobs that offer a living wage and health insurance, along with other benefits such as G.E.D.s, citizenship, proficiency in English, home ownership, paid vacations, and college educations for the workers’ children. Nonprofit professionals who can deliver that are also my heroes, right up there with Brent James.  While we’re holding them to high standards of proof of success, I hope that we can find a way to offer them the high pay and prestige that we already grant to the medical profession.

What if we had a pro bono training on outcomes measurement for nonprofit professionals in Massachusetts?

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As you can probably guess, I spend a lot of time these days worrying about outcomes measurement for nonprofits; I also devote time to discussing this topic with experts and with nonprofit professionals.

As I talk to some of the most impressive mavens in this field I  sometimes ask, “would you travel to Massachusetts at your own expense, to give a free day-long training on outcomes measurement to nonprofit professionals here?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained – am I right?  (Or as my dear sister once put it, I am The Mouth That Knows No Fear.)

A few really stellar experts actually agreed to do it, if a training event could be arranged to suit their schedules and other reasonable needs.  Of course, I am stunned, overwhelmed with gratitude.  Never underestimate the kindness of mavens!

So now I turn to my nonprofit colleagues in Massachusetts, with another unscientific survey.  I want to get a sense of who would be interested in day-long free training.  This survey is for them.  If you’re not a nonprofit professional based in Massachusetts, please do the honorable thing, and refrain from participating in this survey.

Outcomes measurement for nonprofits: Who does the analysis?

I invite you to participate in this survey, bearing in mind that it is for recreational purposes, and has no scientific value:

There are many reasons that this survey is of dubious value, for example:

  • No pilot testing has been done to ensure that the choices offered are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

The list could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.  Although most of my training is in qualitative social research, I have taken undergraduate and graduate level courses on quantitative research, and the points I made about what’s wrong with my survey are what I could pull out of memory without consulting a standard text on statistics.

In other words, when it comes to quantitative analysis, I know just enough to be dangerous.

Meanwhile, I worry about nonprofit organizations that are under pressure to collect, analyze, and report data on the outcomes of their programs.  There are a lot of fantastic executive directors, program managers, and database administrators out there – but it’s very rare for a nonprofit professional who falls into any of those three categories to also have solid skills in quantitative analysis and social research methods.  Nevertheless, I know of plenty of nonprofit organizations where programmatic outcomes measurement is done by an executive director, program manager, or database administrator whose skill set is very different from what the task demands.  In many cases, even if they come up with a report, the nonprofit staff members may not even be aware that what have done is presented a lot of data, without actually showing that there is any causal relationship between the organization’s activities and the social good that they are in business to deliver.

Let’s not be too hasty in deprecating the efforts of these nonprofit professionals.  They are under a lot of pressure, especially from grantmaking foundations, to report on programmatic outcomes.  In many cases, they do the best they can to respond, even if they have neither the internal capacity to meet the task nor the money to hire a professional evaluator.

By the way, I was delighted to attend gathering this fall, in which I heard a highly-regarded philanthropic professional ask a room full of foundation officers, “are you requiring $50,000 worth of outcomes measurement for a $10,000 grant?” It’s not the only question we need to ask, but it’s an extremely cogent one!

I’d love to see nonprofit professionals, philanthropists, and experts in quantitative analysis work together to address this challenge.

We should also be learning lessons from the online tools that have already been developed to match skilled individuals with nonprofit professionals who need help and advice from experts.  Examples of such tools include the “Research Matchmaker,” and NPO Connect.

We can do better.  It’s going to take time, effort, money, creativity, and collaboration – but we can do better.

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