Tag Archives: nonprofit

Evidence +/vs Innovation

Paul Carttar has an interesting post up over at the Bridgespan Group’s blog entitled Evidence and Innovation – Friend or Foe?

Carttar frames the discussion with an anecdote:

…during a recent discussion about what makes a nonprofit organization “high-performance.” One participant nominated innovation as a critical factor. To my astonishment, this stirred an impassioned dissent from another participant, a recognized and vocal proponent of evidence and accountability, who argued that in the nonprofit world the word “innovation” typically implies the generation of exciting new ideas, apparently free of any bothersome, killjoy demands for validation of merit.

Carttar talks about how this is nothing new – that during his time running the white house Social Innovation Fund, he often heard complaints that evaluation stifles innovation. And I’ve certainly seen numerous innovative approaches shut down or left un(der)funded because they’re not “evidence based” – but Carttar makes two important distinctions: 1) Innovation is less about “something new” and more about “something better,” and 2) ” hard evidence of relative performance is the most legitimate, productive way to determine what actually is better.”

Carttar then goes on to discuss the varying types of “hard evidence,” clearly stating that not all types are appropriate for all efforts. He makes the crucial distinction between startup and mid-stage enterprises, and what type of evaluation and “evidence” makes sense for each.

At its best, evidence serves as innovation’s good friend by stimulating continued improvement and providing potential beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders an objective basis for determining whom to turn to and to support. In this way, evidence can not only “cull the herd” but actually propel the growth and scaling of the best innovations, enabling them over time to become the prevailing practice. In fact, that’s the hopeful theory underlying the SIF.

To be sure, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict between evidence and innovation, which must be diligently managed. Potential funders may demand unrealistically rigorous standards of evidence to assess relatively immature, still-evolving programs—potentially stifling the development of promising solutions. Ill-timed, poorly executed, or inaccurately interpreted evaluation studies can also prematurely choke off development. Or backers of a program with a robust empirical basis may hesitate to invest in further improvements (that is, continued innovation) for fear of undermining the program’s evidentiary support and perceived competitive advantage.

The discussion continues in the comments, and is worth reading for its thoughtfulness and appreciation of nuance.

The evolution of strategic thinking in noprofits

Jed Emerson’s twitter feed (@blendedvalue) pointed me to this SSIR article by Barbara Kibbe entitled Five Things Strategy Isn’t, which Emerson describes in the comments as “just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.”

The first half of the article is just that – a great summary of how “the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation” has evolved from flip charts that simply record discussions, to logic models, to SROI and beyond. I’m oversimplifying what Kibbe herself calls an oversimplification, but that’s because it’s worth checking the article itself if you’re not familiar with the evolution of evaluation processes, tools and thinking from the 80s to now. My own nonprofit journey didn’t start until the 90s, but being in small local nonprofits, we certainly used 80s tools/thinking in the 90s (and sometimes still today).

The second half of the article opens by saying that the current debate over the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy, but in order to have that debate we should be careful in defining our terms. And Kibbe starts that definitional discussion by pointing out five times when what we call strategic thinking isn’t actually strategic:

  • when it’s fixed – good strategy is never fixed, nor is it a single tool (or a pair of tools). Kibbe quotes Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBS: “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.”
  • when it’s insulated – context is key, and if strategy and evaluation are not considered together then both will suffer
  • when it doesn’t consider people – strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the complexities of human beings
  • when it’s old, hidden or boring – strategy needs to be current, compelling and shared in order for others to understand it and buy in
  • when we are too attached to it – here Kibbe quotes The Independent Sector’s founder John Gardner saying “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good” and following up with how important it is for foundations to listen to and support good ideas from the field.

Kibbe closes with her hopes for the future, including this quote that I really liked:

When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.


Nonprofit Seeks Acquirer

I’ve been involved in a number of nonprofit mergers and acquisitions (and potential ones that did not happen) at the board and executive staff level. It’s always an interesting process, with a great deal of discussion around why the prospective parties would or would not fit together, potential synergies, etc. However, this is the first time that I’ve seen a call go out from a nonprofit/project seeking a sponsor. Usually, if it is a project seeking sponsorship, there are a few larger organizations that they have in mind, and they approach those folks individually and quietly. Is this more public approach by Social Actions indicative of the social web’s tendency towards openness, transparency and inclusiveness? A recognition that casting a wider net might bring unexpected partners to the table? Simply a commitment to using some of the tools that the organization helps others to utilize? Or just the ignorance of the founders as to “how things are normally done” allowing for fresh thinking on how to do them?

Whatever the answers (most likely a combination of all of the above), the slide show that they’ve put together (below) is great – clear, concise, and gives both the “what’s-in-it-for-me” for the future fiscal sponsor and the “what-we’re-looking-for” from the organization itself. I’ll be very interested to see how this plays out.

The Internet and Social Networking (and their enemies)

I’ve spent lots more time learning about and playing with social networks for my job lately (plus a couple of weeks out of town and completely offline), meaning less time actually participating in the internet culture via this blog.  So here’s a great quote from Christian Lorentzen (a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine) from an article entitled “The Internet and its Enemies”, making use of a quote from my favorite author, followed by a few articles about social media that I have enjoyed recently.

“TV,” David Foster Wallace has said, “is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.” The difference between the Television Mind and the Internet Mind is that the latter has access to the vulgar and prurient and dumb as well as the refined and aesthetic and noble elements of culture. And unlike TV, the internet fosters a culture of participation that, though it may lead the majority to public displays of vulgarity, banality, and idiocy, draws enough talented people to noble pursuits in what might be called the “online underground” to give credence to the claims of the cyber-Utopians. The Internet Mind then is a craven, stupid, obedient thing – except in the frequent instances when it is compassionate, subtle, and free.
The interesting social networking articles:
The tools that I’ve been playing with most have been google reader and friendfeed.  Both have been highly valuable and taken way more time than I expected.  The biggest surprise is not the amount of noise that I get, but the amount of signal.  I’ve got about 150 items in my google reader that I actually want to read right now, but don’t have the time to devote to reading.  Not a bad problem to have.

“Deep Metaphors” connect with people

Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman of HBS (yep, it’s HBS catchup day) wrote a book on marketing using deep metaphors: Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers. You can read an interview with them here, to get a better idea of what the book covers, and what they mean by “deep metaphors”:

Deep metaphors are basic frames or orientations we have toward the world around us. They are “deep” because they are largely unconscious and universal. They are “metaphors” because they recast everything we think about, hear, say, and do.

One example that they discuss is Coke’s highly successful “I’d like to teach the world to sing” campaign, which didn’t say much about Coke, but tapped into the deep metaphors of connection and social balance. The book apparently details 7 of the most commonly used deep metaphors across a variety of products.

If consumer goods are able to tap into these deep metaphors to improve sales, this information ought to be extremely useful to social sector organizations actually working to improve things like social balance. Perhaps the trick is to keep the message metaphorical, since “most thinking occurs without awareness”? Are we hurting ourselves by talking about literal benefits to society rather than speaking in metaphors? Is speaking to the unconscious more powerful than trying to raise consciousness?

Money CAN buy happiness…

…if it is given away.  At least according to research by HBS professor Michael I. Norton and colleagues Elizabeth W. Dunn and Lara B. Aknin, described in the journal Science.

How money is spent seems to influence personal happiness more than how much money is made.  Great news for charitable organizations, and perhaps a reason for the social entrepreneurs to rethink language about social impact investments as opposed to charitable gifts.

Conversation: The Future of Social Enterprise

Harvard Business School professors V. Kasturi Rangan and Susan McDonald are hosting a conversation based on their recent paper, The Future of Social Enterprise. Click here to read a summary of their findings and join in the conversation.

The questions posed center around social sector evolution and measuring ROI and social impact – the conversation started today and already has some interesting posts.  These web forum conversations generally only last a week or two, so check it out now in order to participate!