The Nonprofit Imperative: Following the Evidence, but Leading the Charge

For the past several weeks, I've been writing about the urgent need to redefine "success" in the nonprofit sector.
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For the past several weeks, I've been writing about the urgent need to redefine "success" in the nonprofit sector. My central point is that good intentions aren't enough -- only great outcomes scaled to meet huge national needs will change the lives of the people we serve.

How do you promote scale and accomplish the shift to evidence-based standards of success? To begin with, I believe that philanthropies need to stop chasing innovation and increasingly focus on the "unsexy" work of building capacity in their nonprofit partners. Next, I've argued that governments need to shift from sprinkling a few dollars across the entire nonprofit sector, in favor of strategically funding those efforts that can prove the greatest impact.

All of those things are important, but they're not enough. Fundamental change in the nonprofit sector won't start with philanthropists or government policymakers. As nonprofit leaders, we have to take the primary responsibility for adopting this new definition of "success." We must hold ourselves accountable to objective measures and quantifiable outcomes. We have to be the agents of change, rather than the subjects.

It's almost a truism to say that change starts from within, but too often, I think, leaders in the nonprofit world tend to act as if just the opposite were true. How many times have we cited that nonprofit golden rule: "Those who have the gold, rule." So we tell ourselves that "they" have all the power, that we're at the mercy of our funders, and they set the standards and establish the expectations.

That might seem like a strange mindset, given the kind of people who choose to dedicate their lives to nonprofit work. The entire sector was built -- and continues to be built -- by extraordinarily passionate citizens willing to take a sub-competitive wage in order to provide critical programs to the poor and disenfranchised members of their communities. These are people who can look at a hopeless situation and will themselves to find hope, driving themselves to create powerful solutions to some of the nation's most intractable problems. Passivity isn't in their DNA. They are not wired to accept the status quo.

And yet, when it comes to performance management, status quo tends to be the rule, rather than the exception. Leaders who wouldn't dream of accepting homelessness or human trafficking or HIV as insoluble problems are somehow stymied by the challenge of poor numbers or shoddy evidence in running their programs.

The difference, I think, goes back to definitions. Most of us get involved in this work because we feel passionate about education or poverty or whatever the mission may be. Management, on the other hand, is hardly the stuff of passion. All too often, it seems dry and time-consuming and far removed from the mission. Sometimes, in fact, "doing" and "managing" are viewed as mutually exclusive: Doers are focused on the mission, managers are focused on the organization, and never the twain shall meet.

On some level, I'm sure every leader must realize that this dichotomy is not just false, but dangerous. We know that greater efficiency in driving outcomes means greater impact and that poor management results in poor delivery of services. And yet we're stretched thin, making do, struggling to keep up with demand. When the mission itself is so far from fulfillment, it's easy to view performance management as a luxury. "We'll just focus on helping people," is what we tell ourselves and our boards. "We'll just keep doing what we do until 'they' (government and philanthropies) fund us to manage well and deliver high quality programs."

The problem, of course, is that "they" cannot or should not do it on their own, because they are not the ones doing the work. Models and theories and white papers are fine, but they don't have the power to change a single life. Real change requires "doers" out in the trenches who are willing to question their most basic assumptions and submit every process to scrutiny and verification, while courageously learning from failure to improve quality..

That's hardly "management" in the narrowest sense. It's leadership.

As leaders, we can't be content with business as usual, comforting ourselves with a few success stories rather than broad-based evidence. If our goal is to make the biggest difference for the most people, then individual anecdotes or weak evidence are not acceptable measures of impact.

I realize that it's hard to follow the evidence wherever it might lead -- especially when that means cherished programs could be at stake. Certainly ongoing quality improvement is tough to tolerate in any organization. When Communities In Schools committed to an evidence-based approach, for instance, we had to turn away funding for programs that no longer met our standards. More painful still, we had to part ways with a number of local affiliates who refused to come on board with more effective business and program practices.

CIS was hardly the first nonprofit to commit to evidence-based programing, and I don't claim that we've made the transition better than anyone else. Indeed, we've had the privilege of learning from pioneering organizations such as, Youth Villages, the YMCA, and Nurse-Family Partnership as we made our own journey toward evidentiary standards.

I'm sure any of those organizations would agree that the process is messy and controversial and even painful. But in the end, I have to believe that it's the only route available to us if we truly aspire to improve the lives of millions of Americans.

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