Posts from the ‘Accountability for Results’ Category

All Aboard!: A Tool for Changemakers to Create Impact

by: Marcelo Pinell

Setting sail on the sea of social impact can be a daunting and overwhelming feat. Some, out of fear, have yet to leave shore while others have been tossed and turned by the challenging waves of the social sector. As the newest member to step on board Blue Garnet, I have been privileged to navigate these vast waters with a team of skilled and experienced social impact geeks who have steered through the rough seas, withstood the storms and driven the high winds of strategy to help leaders and their teams chart their ultimate impact.

Recently, I had the opportunity to witness these social impact geeks in action as I provided support for our Impact Formula Strategy Lab series. We had three eager organizations initially commit to investing in the development of their strategic thinking for three sessions spread across May through July. I was able to join the second session in June and watched the teams progress all the way up to a fourth session this November, which was later added due to popular demand. As it turns out, the work done during this Lab series was not what I expected. The following are some key insights that I walked away with after the Lab. I hope my reflections serve as a fresh perspective on the value of this Lab series in helping leaders create impact.

 

The right dosage can help leaders and their teams address their outcomes

Truth be told, not every nonprofit can afford consultants who can extensively work with them one-on-one for months on end. Plus, some nonprofits may not even need the full services of a consulting firm. Strategy Lab Session 4 PhotoThe Strategy Lab proved this point for me. Providing the correct dosage of support can help leaders and their teams address their outcomes. From May through July (and then once more in November), we trained and educated teams from three organizations. Once a month, they attended a half-day session in which they actively learned, participated, and worked through their Impact Formula. These teams would then go back to their organizations to work on assignments from the session and would return for another session the following month to gain more clarity and continue to build on their work. It was an iterative process that demanded hard work, but after the Lab series, these teams left with the tools and confidence they needed to head back as change agents for their organizations.

 

Consultants are not the changemakers, leaders are!

I’m sure you’ve heard this proverbial saying before: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” I began to see this proverb unfold before my eyes as I watched the Lab participants wrestle with strategic questions. More than giving them a business model, the Lab gave participants the time and space to work as a team with other people in their organization, which is typically difficult to do due to competing priorities and schedules. Additionally, the Lab allowed participants to gain awareness of a holistic view on achieving their “ends,” ask key learning questions and acquire strategic tools so they could think critically about their organization’s impact.

The assumption so often is that the professional consultant creates the impact. Though there is a place for consultants, no one can replace the passion and hours that these leaders give to the people they serve. If you can help equip a leader and deputize them as a change agent, then he or she can build a culture of change.

 

Reaching your intended impact is an intense, iterative and invaluable process

During the Lab, all of the teams got on board and steered through some serious strategic questions. As they sought to gain clarity, though, I noticed that their comfort articulating their theory of change interestingly and surprisingly took a slight dip during the second session. Strategy Lab Session 2 photoOn a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the teams rated their comfort articulating their theory of change a 3.6 after the first session, which then dropped down to a 3.3 after session 2. By the third session, however, the rating jumped back up to a 3.8. The data seems to point to the reality of the intense and iterative nature in building discernment. From my perspective, the teams were initially shocked by some big waves regarding their theory of change, but they gained more confidence and clarity over time to create a vision for impact.

The teams were able to create a vision for impact not only because they iterated on their own work, but also because they learned from each organization’s different approach to tackling its Impact Statement. The value of peer learning was so great that the teams asked for a fourth session, which we completed last week. This additional session allowed the teams to check-in and hold each other accountable to their work.

Navigating the waters of social impact can be overwhelming, but the opportunity to help these organizations map out their impact was an invaluable journey for both them and me. I jumped on board the Lab and saw that it provides the right dosage to help these changemakers “zero in on impact.” Great job, teams! I look forward to the impact that comes forth as a result of your labor. Keep on sailing!

The Top 10 Ways to Do Good with Data

by: Leah Haynesworth and Sithu Thein Swe

The Top 10 Ways to Do Good with Data

Data Scientists: The Unlikely Storytellers

As a team of social impact geeks, we love hearing about new, effective ways to create social change. Consequently, we recently sent two of our team members, Sithu and Leah, to the Do Good Data Conference in Chicago. The Conference, which took place from April 28-29, 2016, brought together over 800 individuals to learn about the present and future of data usage in the social sector. The conference sessions encompassed a wide range of topics, from “Pay for Success: Funding programs that measurably change lives” to “Unlocking the ‘So What?’: Better Data to Advance the Social Mission of the Arts” to “Dashboards and Databases: How Google Can Help.”

After taking time to digest all of their learnings, here are Sithu and Leah’s top 10 takeaways from the conference:

  1. Share learnings from your work – both positive and negative – to support the social sector’s development.
  • The next steps for foundations are managing information as well as producing and sharing knowledge, according to Bradford Smith, President of the Foundation Center. While there are great resources for the social sector, such as IssueLab, foundations should discuss their learnings with their grantees and peers.
  1. Move beyond Excel.
  • Excel is an oft-used tool in organizations’ analytical toolkits. However, there are other solid options to collect, store, report, and analyze data, including Tableau, R, and Python.
  1. Much of project feasibility is the ability to evaluate the project.
  • When launching a pay for success program, some key elements to consider are: outcome, populations, the organization’s quarter by quarter expenses for the next six to seven years, and accessing data for evaluation. Key term: “evaluability.”
  1. Use data to drive narratives.
  • Understanding and clearly communicating data are crucial in creating impact. “Your next role in life as a data scientist is a data storyteller.” – Steve MacLaughlin, Director, Analytics, Blackbaud
  1. Data is only useful if it is relevant.
  • “Data analytics and visualization are great and much needed, but if your data are bad or incomplete, or your outcomes are inappropriate, then all you have are pretty graphs.” – Fluxx
  1. Data is not a panacea.
  1. Start with the ends in mind.
  • When using data, it is critical to clarify the problems on which to focus, determine the right questions to ask, and understand the aim in using the data. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to become overwhelmed by the data.
  1. Create mindshifts in how your organization talks about data and its purpose.
  • Creating a data-driven culture isn’t easy, but Erika Van Buren, Director of Learning & Evaluation at First Place for Youth, takes a great approach. She works with team members almost like clients by supporting them from the initial program development phase and collaborating with them throughout the process.
  1. Are you ready and willing to make the tough decisions needed to be a data-driven, impact-oriented organization?
  • During the conference’s first keynote session, a leader from a prominent foundation said: “In 20 years, I’ve never seen data change anything. It takes courageous leaders to make the changes.”
  1. “Data science is easy; the ethics of prediction is hard.” – Tom Schenk, Chief Data Officer, City of Chicago
  • As Stephen Goldsmith, Professor of Practice at Harvard Kennedy School, mentioned, there are soft biases in all of our decisions. With data algorithms, however, we can make the biases explicit, transparent, and open for public feedback and iteration.

The conference sessions revealed the vast implications for data use in the social sector. Judging by the continual growth of the conference, the social sector as a whole is aware of the importance of data. What does this mean for your organization? How do you use data to inform your work and further your impact?

Doing Good With Data

by: Sithu Thein Swe, June 1, 2015

As we enter into the thick of conference season, I want to share my recent experience at a pretty unique and relatively new conference: Do Good Data 2015.

In just its second year, the conference brought 600+ data geeks from across the country (and even other countries) to Chicago — quadrupling the size of its first conference. There were opportunities to connect with like-minded do-gooders, the keynote speakers were inspiring, and workshops helped build practical knowledge and skills. Topics covered included program development, data visualization, evaluation, marketing and fundraising, and even machine learning.

Having spent some time post-conference “digesting” and sharing learnings with the Blue Garnet team, here are the highlights from the conference that resonated most with me:

  1. Ned Breslin speaking honestly about Water for People’s progress and hiccups in their pursuit of impact
  2. Michael Weinstein sharing the Robin Hood Foundation’s rigorous monetization approach to grantmaking
  3. Dean Karlan discussing the role of randomized control trials in today’s social sector landscape

1. Fearless honesty as a nonprofit

It is easy for an organization to feature anecdotes of success and suggest they are representative of all the work they do (regardless of how accurate this may be). But how often do organizations call attention to failures and shortcomings as part of a commitment to transparency and improvement?

The latter approach takes courage and leadership, and is exemplified by Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People. He spoke about the “fearless honesty” necessary to understanding progress (and hiccups) towards impact. Rigorous monitoring helps them to constantly learn what’s working, what isn’t, and how to improve. For them, this commitment to fearless honesty entailed developing open-source technology, setting expectations with staff that data and monitoring are everyone’s responsibility, engaging partners, and taking blame for failures. Ned has taken fearless honesty to the extreme by literally stripping down on YouTube to call attention to projects that weren’t working and their commitment to do better.

2. Fearless honesty as a funder

Michael Weinstein shared the Robin Hood Foundation’s approach to philanthropy, which has many parallels to the transparent, data-minded, and bold (yet humble) approach of Water for People. I was impressed to hear about the Foundation’s efforts not to overstate impact by considering counterfactuals and displacement effects to better determine “true impact.” At the end of the day, accountability for funders is usually self-imposed, and the Robin Hood Foundation seems to set the bar high for itself and practice what it preaches.

Naturally, this rigor applies to the Foundation’s funding strategy. They practice “rigorous monetization” to better understand costs and benefits of programs across sectors, and how these programs help the Foundation achieve its intended impact. Their cost/benefit assumptions and calculations are made public; for example, they’ve calculated that the poverty-alleviating benefit of a high school diploma is $120,000 in earnings and $90,000 in health benefits. Michael has admitted they are imperfect—but by making this information open to all, he hopes others can help them become “less wrong.”

Michael and the Robin Hood Foundation’s approach may not be for everyone, but the advice he shared should resonate with funders of all types: “Never, ever make grants on the basis of arithmetic alone.”

3. Measuring what matters with CART

Dean Karlan, a development economist who has helped push the thinking in this field (and greatly influenced my own worldview), was another keynote speaker that left quite an impression. His work exemplifies just how powerful, insightful, and critical randomized control trials can be, as illustrated by a recent study on learning how to help the world’s ultra-poor.

Even though he’s a leading expert in randomized control trials, he recognizes that they aren’t always appropriate. His talk focused on how organizations can build strong data practices and measure what matters most, regardless of organizational size. His suggested “CART” principles are a helpful way of thinking about right-sizing data collection. He suggests we ask: Is the data Credible? Actionable? Responsible? Transportable?

Rather than flesh out each of these CART components here, I’ll refer you to his SSIR blog post for more detail.

We need leaders at every level to support data-organizations

Finally, a theme that emerged across the conference was the critical role of leaders. An organization that embeds data into its DNA doesn’t have all the answers—rather, this practice guarantees that data will surface failures and shortcomings. But that’s what helps organizations understand what does work and what doesn’t.

Staff, executives, and Board leadership need to be comfortable with seeing “bad” information that can help guide improvements. As Ned Breslin noted, this emphasis will in turn attract a different type of individual (and donor) to the organization.

In wrapping up, I want to pose a question:

  • Nonprofit leaders—what can you do to promote a data-hungry, learning culture within your organization?
  • Leading funders—amidst an environment that incentivizes organizations to only show successes, what can funders do to support bold leaders trying to take this data-driven approach?

The “Un-sexy” Work of Making Strategy Real

by Way-Ting Chen (December 19, 2014)

At heart, I am a strategist. I have a bit of a confession to make: over the course of years, I have witnessed it over and over again—in my years as a research analyst, a corporate management consultant, and now a social entrepreneur. But despite having the soul of a strategist, I have found what I am about to share with you to be undeniably true.

Strategy matters. It matters a lot. Strategy that bridges aspiration with a grounding in what it takes to make that strategy happen is the most effective of all. But here’s the secret that “strategy consultants” don’t always tell you: strategy means nothing if you can’t make it real. How you do something will define success for what it is you set out to do. In the end, implementation trumps strategy every time.

But do not fear, my strategy-minded friends. Implementation planning (i.e. pacing and calibration of how to achieve your strategy) builds the bridge between what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, but its power goes beyond articulating how you are going to make your strategy real. If done as part of a thorough strategic planning process, it can help inform the strategy too. It’s not linear; rather, it is an iterative conversation. And it makes what you’re trying to do more likely to come true.

Think of it this way: it starts with the planning. Implementation happens in one form or another whether or not we plan intentionally for it, and I’ve seen my fill of “strategic plans” that define the what (e.g., strategy) without any reference to the how (sustaining the business model, organizational implications, implementation roadmap, etc.).

One of the leading strategy firms in the world, McKinsey, wrote about implementation of corporate strategy, but I believe it applies to the field of social impact as well: “good implementers retain more value at every stage of the process than poor implementers do, and the[ir] impact is significant.”

To be clear, I’m not advocating for implementation without strategy. Nor am I advocating for implementation planning without strategic planning. That would be like trying to map directions without knowing where it is you’re trying to go.

What I believe in is defining strategy in tandem with an implementation roadmap. Let strategy frame implementation, and let implementation ground strategy. When this intentionally and methodically occurs during the planning process, you get increased organizational clarity, healthier economics to sustain your organization, and greater accountability to drive results.

Check out McKinsey’s article to learn more about their findings regarding what sustains strategy throughout implementation. We want to know: what has been your experience with implementation and planning for implementation? How much have you invested in implementation planning has it related to your organization’s strategy? Tell us in the comments section or by emailing hello@bluegarnet.net!

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