Posts from the ‘Impact & Strategy’ 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!

Making Strategic Planning Real

by: Shannon Johnson

It’s time to get real…about making social impact in Los Angeles. That’s exactly what The John Gogian Family Foundation did on January 27th, 2016, in Torrance, CA. Lindsey Stammerjohn, Executive Director, understands that long-term sustainable social change doesn’t just happen – it needs to be carefully planned. So she and the foundation stepped up to the plate and hosted a forum for all their grantees (70+ in attendance, their highest ever) focused on “Making Strategic Business Planning Real.” Pretty awesome, huh? We thought so too.

I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer, but strategic business planning is (and should be) hard. You are asking and answering tough, strategic qDilys Garciauestions. Want to know what helps? Learning from others who have been there. That’s why we interviewed Dilys Tosteson Garcia, Executive Director at Court Appointed Special Advocates Los Angeles (CASA), throughout the forum. She candidly painted a real-life picture of the struggles and triumphs in her organization’s strategic planning process. Their process was of particular interest to the attendees as she and her team developed a bold and visionary plan to TRIPLE their impact while simultaneously undergoing a complete shift in their funding model. In the process, they strengthened their program model, invested in data systems and elevated their internal culture!

Thinking of starting a strategic planning process? As we shared during the forum, here are few tips to keep in mind:

  • A Strategic Business Plan becomes REAL when you not only define your desired impact in a measurable way but also align it with your business model, make sure you can afford it, develop a plan for how you’re going to implement it, measure your progress, learn along the way, and hold yourself accountable to it. PS – when all is said and done, it is a very, very powerful and beautiful thing and worth all the effort!

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  • Process is as important as content. Building a strategic business plan takes time, but it can be “chunked” out into 3 main steps:

Where are we today?

  • Engaging the “right” people at the “right” time is critical. Think about whom, when, and how different stakeholders (e.g. Board, staff, clients, funders, supporters) should be involved. Our motto: involve “early and often.”
  • Your plan should be adaptive. Strategies and plan can (and should) change over time. (Read more about emergent strategies here.)

A big thank you to The John Gogian Family Foundation, Dilys Tosteson Garcia, and all the inspiring nonprofit leaders who attended for an engaging, productive day!

Are you interested in Making Strategic Business Planning Real? Click here to learn more about Blue Garnet’s Impact Accelerator Strategy Labs.

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?

Does your (legal) form follow function?

by: Way-Ting Chen (with Giselle Timmerman and Taylor Chamberlin)

Deciding on the right legal structure for your social purpose organization or social enterprise can be a taxing process (pun intended), with many trade-offs to consider. Figuring out the differences between a Low-Profit LLC, Social Purpose Corporation, Benefit LLC, or traditional exempt organization is difficult enough to untangle, much less being certain of making the right choice for what your organization needs.

When considering legal structure decisions, start with the end in mind

Before deciding on a legal structure, consider your ultimate “ends”: your impact.

We’d like to help make this decision a little less tangled and a little better informed for you, and the first step is to answer the question, “legal structure for what?” Remember that in the world of social impact, your legal structure is just another means to achieving your ultimate ends: your impact. Simply put, your “ends” is your long-term organizational strategy, or intended ultimate impact. With the end in mind, you will have clarity about which legal status will help you to achieve your intended impact.

Let’s look at two client examples to put this approach into practice.

A supportive housing organization and a start-up apparel company both want to increase their financial sustainability while also growing their services. The supportive housing organization (let’s call it “Safe Haven”) is presented with the opportunity to develop a real-estate property adjacent to its building. The apparel company (we’ll call it “Sustainawrap”) is presented with the opportunity to create and sell products. How does each organization move forward with assessing the merits of these opportunities and their legal implications?

Safe Haven weighed the pros and cons of leasing market rate rental units or providing permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals. Their discussions landed on a critical question: Real-estate property for what end? They needed to define their intended ultimate impact in order to get clear and unified on what purpose the real estate property needed to serve. Ultimately, they realized they did not need a “cash cow” to generate unrestricted cash flow, so they committed to using this real estate for permanent supportive housing (using a hybrid legal model to minimize legal liability) to directly further their mission.

Safe Haven’s impact statement provided strategic direction: By 2023, North County homeless population will be reduced by 50%.

Sustainawrap weighed the pros and cons of launching a social enterprise to sell baby products. They struggled at first with defining how the social enterprise would contribute to their overall organizational strategy. After agreeing that their “ends” must be women’s self-sufficiency, they used their impact statement to help filter and guide decision-making.

Sustainawrap impact statement: By 2025, 100 homeless women living below the poverty line in LA County will be on the path to financial self-sufficiency. The means to their ends became creating jobs and selling unique baby products, so that impoverished women were employed. With this strategic goal in mind, business planning for their social enterprise was much easier, and they decided that a for-profit legal structure provided the simplicity and flexibility needed to achieve their ends. 

Organizations with similar mission statements may have very different impact statements. But, with clarity on their long-term strategic direction, the legal structure decision (along with many other critical choices) becomes simpler.

Finally, the expectations and perceptions we have of various legal structures is evolving. Based on the most recent Edelman trust barometer report, a full 80% of people agree that business must play a role in addressing societal issues.

"Scrooge McDuck"

A “for-profit” legal structure doesn’t make you a Scrooge McDuck

A for-profit structure doesn’t make you a Scrooge McDuck, just as a nonprofit status doesn’t put a halo over your head.  So, setting aside any expectations or stereotypes, make the hard decisions to figure out your intended impact and strategy, then make the legal structure decision that follows.

Click here for our briefing on what an impact thinking mindset is, and here for how you can become a better ‘impact do-er’. For further help with your social enterprise’s legal structure, check out Sustainable Law Group, and the webinar series we presented together with the Society for Nonprofits.

Setting (and achieving) goals take guts!

by: Giselle Timmerman and Taylor Chamberlin

Over the last several months, we’ve explored two of the three key components to setting and achieving individual goals (see developing a vision and establishing a plan). Today, let’s finish by tackling the final component: commitment and guts.

achieving goalsWhen you have developed a vision and established a plan to achieve it, the third step to effective goal-setting is to make these behavioral changes stick.

Much like a muscle, you can exhaust your willpower when you use too much of it. Plan ahead to conserve willpower and prevent yourself from slipping into situations that deter you from your goal. For instance, dieters can preempt future desires by knowing before entering a restaurant exactly what they will do and say when the dessert menu comes. To stay on track and accomplish your goal, identify a handful of obstacles that could block progress and decide exactly what you will do if these hurdles arise.

Another way to ensure perseverance towards your goal is to develop courage in small ways. To activate a “growth mindset,” you’ll need to manage fear of failure by courageously embracing mistakes as a necessary part of learning. Find creative ways to push yourself by exercising courage, and as an added benefit you will build your sense of self-efficacy, thus improving your ability to stick to your goal. I find Eleanor Roosevelt’s adage useful: Do something that scares you everyday.

Lastly, ensure that the activities you must do to achieve your become habits, which require far less willpower to maintain. To build new habits:

  1. Use cues that trigger your unconscious mind, such as a framed photo of mom next to the phone.
  2. Be honest with yourself every day on what you did to make progress. Ask yourself: How much effort did I put in today? How much progress did that create?
  3. Hook a new habit to an old one. This can be as simple as remembering to floss after you brush.
  4. Reduce the level of “activation energy” it takes to start your new habit. For example, put your running shoes right by the door, or keep your to do list visible on your desktop to easily tackle when you are waiting on hold.
  5. Enlist an accountability partner or coach (every great performer, from athletes to surgeons to managers now use them) and include them in the process of achieving your goals and building your habits.

There you have it – a researched and empirically tested way to dramatically improve your ability to achieve your goals. Blue Garnet works with clients to define and achieve success at the organizational level, but it’s a treat to share with you some tips for planning at the individual level.

Please let us know how you put your goals into practice, and what your experience has been with learning to achieve them. And of course if you have any questions, email us at hello@bluegarnet.net!

Tackling the “impact question”

By Jennifer Shen 

How many times have you heard the word “impact” or “outcomes” this week? We’re betting quite a few — we’d even say they’re buzzwords of the year.

In fact, at the recent 2015 Green Hasson Janks Nonprofit Conference, the discussion touched on these themes. We heard, “data is king […,] you need to measure results and understand your true costs […,] create case studies that highlight impact […,] and exceptional leaders are always looking 3-5 years out. Yup, though Panelists Fred AliRegina BirdsellPegine Graysonand Scott Pansky were addressing different issues like leadership, marketing and volunteerism, we heard all their observations as related to creating exceptional impact.

These themes are centered on a critical question that still begs to be answered: so what? Or put less provocatively: What is the specific impact your organization seeks? And how does what you do create that impact?

We believe a different approach is necessary to operate in today’s outcomes-focused world. One that aligns your intentions with what you do and the results of your efforts. Here are three tidbits to get you started:

impact, biz model, and learning are linked

Your impact, business model, and evaluation can and should be linked

1) Start with the end in mind. Creating social change is complex and takes a long time. Start by focusing on what you want your outcome to be over the long term, then develop your strategies to achieve that impact, rather than taking a quick-fix approach to answering “the impact question” on your latest grant report.

2) Link your strategy for impact, your business model, and your learning and evaluation efforts (see visual to the right). This link creates alignment and integration — you don’t have to separate the work of creating social change from figuring out whether or not that work is indeed making an impact. These elements are and should be mutually reinforcing.

3) Develop a common language. We need a shared language and reasonable expectations for funders and nonprofits to talk about output, outcomes and impact. Our current system incentivizes short-term thinking, and expectations around impact are often unrealistic. By creating opportunities for communication on this topic with both funders and nonprofits, we can begin a conversation that will create a more honest and effective social sector.

If you’re interested in taking this approach at your organization, take the next step by attending our upcoming workshop, “What You Need to Know about Outcomes as a Nonprofit Leader,” on October 23rd at First 5 LA’s downtown offices. Register now as space is limited, and learn more on our webpage.      


About Green Hasson Janks

Green Hasson Janks is one of the premier accounting firms serving nonprofits in Southern California. We have over 30 years of experience serving public charities and private foundations, and we are well-versed on current nonprofit benchmarking and governance issues. We offer our nonprofit clients a wide range of professional services including accounting, auditing, management consulting and tax planning and compliance.

Thank you to Donella Wilson and Green Hasson Janks for sharing this post on their blog!

Local Leader Spotlight: Colleen Mensel on sharpening your business model

El Viento provides children and young adults with opportunities for success in life through long-term relationships based upon: Mutual Trust and Respect, Exemplary Character, Skills Building, Leadership, Teamwork, and Learning. El Viento Foundation’s success will be measured by the happiness and fulfillment of our participants.

El Viento provides children and young adults with opportunities for success through long-term relationships. El Viento Foundation’s success is measured by the happiness and fulfillment of its participants.

What does it take for an organization to move from good to truly exceptional? For starters, it takes leaders willing to tackle tough strategic questions. Colleen Mensel, President and Chief Executive Officer of El Viento, is one such leader.

Colleen, along with Julie Taber, El Viento’s Operations Manager, participated in a bootcamp on “Sharpening Your Business Model” taught by Blue Garnet and sponsored by the Fieldstone Foundation. The bootcamp focused on how impact and business models fit together, what the key components of a business model are, and how to measure success. Simply put, the bootcamp experience “was something to help us with our compass and how to move forward.” When we spoke with Colleen in May, she shared why this process has mattered so much.

Taking an integrated view

Blue Garnet: Ultimately, why did you feel it was important to spend time sharpening your business model?

Colleen: When you look at how typical nonprofits move forward with their “business plans,” they really see many different plans, rather than seeing how they are all related on a more basic level. We now have an overarching model and everything plugs into that. We were able to share our model with our board and get their buy-in, and to take this model to our funders.[1]

Blue Garnet: Why was Board engagement in this process so essential?

Colleen: We were able to set realistic goals, down to the level of annual performance objectives. Before, our dashboard was all financial; now we are looking at multiple moving parts of the organization (e.g. kids’ retention rates, GPA). We’ve worked with the board to understand that our business model includes every aspect of the organization, not just finances.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.45.02 PM

Developing a growth mindset, creating mindshifts

Blue Garnet: Having an overarching business model really seems to have shifted the way you and your organization think.

Colleen: Yes, it has. The business model [framework] helped us look at our core competencies and refine what we think is good, but good wasn’t enough for us. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can be better. This model integrates all the work we do, and following it has helped us to grow. In fact, it has helped us better think through future growth – we can see where we are and use the model to help us grow in different areas. We’ve decided to put together an Academy, and we went back to the [business model] framework to help us think through this decision.

Blue Garnet: Can you give me another example?

Colleen: We’ve looked differently at our measures. We make a 10-year commitment to our kids, and over the years we used to lose about 50%, which most thought was a good retention rate. But we asked how we could become better. The business model helped us look at our core competencies, especially how we interact with the students, and as a result last year our retention rate was 94%.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.57.10 PM

Having the courage to change, taking risks

Blue Garnet: What does it mean to you to be an “impact thinker”?[2]

Colleen: You have to be aware of the dollars that are coming in so you can make the most of that generosity. If you aren’t an impact thinker, you’re doing a disservice to your contributors. We encourage everyone at El Viento to be impact thinkers, from staff to board to the people we collaborate with out in the community. We have to make the most out of the tools, time, and dollars we have—knowing that has made us a little braver.

Blue Garnet: Were there any challenges to making this shift?

Colleen: Impact thinking means always looking, having an idea of where you want to be, but also having the courage to change to improve. People questioned our change, and yet we pushed forward and now are in a better place. A year later, they can see the improvements. Working on our business model helped forge the way.

Blue Garnet: Can you share a specific benefit of this change?

Colleen: We looked closely at what we were doing. For example, we decided to do fewer, more meaningful and educational field trips. That was a hard change, but everyone sees the benefits now. Having a tool for assessing decisions, particularly with staff, helps you analyze and understand what you’re doing to be most effective.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.55.07 PM

Seizing opportunities

Blue Garnet: What were some other tangible actions or results from this work?

Colleen: We now use our business model as a tool to assess decisions. We have used our model to evaluate a new opportunity that arose to get reimbursed from school districts for the tutoring we provide. Going back to the model helped us understand that we could take this opportunity and make it a social enterprise. We are also doing a pilot of another social enterprise and are looking at tailoring the learning experience to be more proactive rather than reactive. We are using our business model to understand how what we learn from this pilot fits into El Viento’s long-term strategy for impact. Having the basics on how to assess these opportunities is very helpful.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.59.04 PM

We applaud Colleen for openly and generously sharing part of her leadership journey, as well as to El Viento for its tenacious commitment to helping children and young adults succeed. If you would like to dive deeper into how exceptional funders and nonprofit leaders become better “impact doers,” check your inbox in a few weeks for our Impact Doing Briefing or sign up to learn more about one of our upcoming Impact Accelerator workshops.

Related Links and Resources

  1. How El Viento makes a difference
  2. Blue Garnet’s Impact Accelerator Workshops
  3. Connect with El Viento on Twitter (@ElVientoFndtn)

[1] Blue Garnet defines three components of an organization’s business model: 1) what you do, 2) for whom you do it, 3) how you afford it.

[2] See Blue Garnet’s Impact Thinking Briefing for more on how to be an “impact thinker.” Link to briefing: Blue Garnet’s Impact Thinking Briefing.

The Two Essentials for Amplifying Impact: Interview with Sara Beggs of Exponent Philanthropy

Think impact assessment has to be costly, drawn out, or tedious? Think again. Sara Beggs, the mastermind behind the 10-minute impact assessment, recently spoke with us to share “the 10-minute impact assessment,” a simple tool to increase impact and identify behaviors where you can focus energy and grow.

As Senior Program Director at Exponent Philanthropy, an organization dedicated to empowering philanthropists to leverage their resources and amplify their impact, Sara has taken this assessment on the road, sharing it funders in LA and nationwide. Read on for highlights of our conversation!

Inspiration behind the ten-minute impact assessment

We all want evidence that our efforts to support positive social outcomes are effective, but impact can be intimidating. We at Blue Garnet believe there is a rigorous yet practical and approachable way to discuss impact, evaluate your behaviors, and improve. So does Sara:

Small funders that needed an accessible way to think about impact inspired us to develop the assessment. We brought together a 45-member working group to help us better understand what they were experiencing in the field, and we had a breakthrough when a member mentioned how useful a diagnostic tool could be.

Now, with the 10-minute Impact Assessment, funders can identify where they are on a simple spectrum (from “thinking about impact” to “planning for impact” to “amplifying impact”). Then, using the accompanying resources, they can identify opportunities and measure their improvement over time, to ultimately spur more impactful grantmaking.

We at Blue Garnet see Exponent Philanthropy’s assessment as a simple starting point for both staff and Board to catalyze conversations around impact.

Resources for organizations interested in evaluating their impact

Blue Garnet believes that evaluation can serve as a learning opportunity, helping an organization to move toward their intended impact, instead of retrospectively answering the question of whether we reached a target. Exponent Philanthropy encourages this mindset by providing resources to funders:

Once a foundation takes the assessment, they want to know is what to do next. So, we included tips, resources, and examples of how other foundations have improved, so that after competing the assessment, foundations are equipped to move the conversation forward and begin to make more intentional and effective decisions.

The assessment’s results

Understanding where your organization is at today is only the first step of the journey. How mini case-Swayne Foundationhave leaders used the assessment as a springboard for improvement? Sara shares:

The assessment engages decision-makers to contribute insightful ideas, empowering them to contribute and ask good questions to move the organization forward. After the assessment, they see impact as a journey where they will continuously learn, improve, and push the envelope by asking, “How can we do more?”

They use the assessment to create greater focus, and to understand steps they can take to make measurable progress toward their desired impact.

Where Exponent Philanthropy is taking it

Sara and Exponent Philanthropy aren’t resting on the success of the assessment—they too are on a journey to deepen their impact.

We’re excited to be developing an online version of the assessment. With this new iteration, organizations will quickly be able to analyze their results and benchmark to similar organizations.

We will continue to leverage the resources developed for the assessment, share stories about how organizations are moving along the impact spectrum, and help funders to start taking clear steps toward increased impact. The assessment prompts important conversations and mind shifts, which can have a profound impact on an organization’s grantmaking. Moving forward, we’re excited to help prime even more philanthropies for amplified impact.

The two essential things you can do to amplify their impact

  1. Be intentional. If you are not thoughtful about what your organization chooses to do (and not do), you may become so overwhelmed by the things you say yes to that you miss out on better aligned opportunities. Furthermore, deliberate decisions will help you to be more adaptive in this rapidly changing and complex environment.
  2. Bring all of your assets to the table. You may not realize that in additional to financial support, your thinking, influence, and bird’s eye view of the sector can prove extremely valuable to your grantees and your community. Think creatively and you’ll be surprised at what you can do!

To download the (free) 10-minute impact assessment, click here. For additional information about Exponent Philanthropy, check out their website or follow them on twitter, and for additional resources on impact, including our impact thinking briefing, check out Blue Garnet’s resource page.

by: Taylor Chamberlin

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?

My strategic plan is done… now what?

by: Sithu Thein Swe, 4/29/15

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the California Charter School Association (CCSA) Annual Conference in Sacramento, and presented to a group of charter school leaders alongside our friends at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. We had the privilege of supporting Camino’s strategic business planning a few years back, and it was rewarding to present with Dr. Ana Ponce and Atyani Howard as they shared how they’ve made their strategies real and ensured their plan is a living document.

I won’t pretend that this short post can do justice to the great insights, perspectives, and advice Ana and Atyani shared. Still, I wanted to quickly share a few highlights that stood out to me, on the hard work of implementing a strategic plan:

A strategic plan isn’t a silver bullet, it’s an anchor.
It’s important to note that a strategic plan doesn’t magically solve (or prevent) all challenges and issues. Rather, it serves as an anchor by helping institutionalize and codify the Camino model amidst tremendous growth. It eliminates wasted energy, keeps the organization focused on where it’s headed, and drives (and even simplifies) decision-making to focus on achieving the organization’s impact.

Continue to engage those stakeholders
Board members, teachers, community members, parents, and supporters helped inform Camino’s strategic direction, as the planning process focused on engaging the right people in the right ways. In implementing the plan, Camino continues to engage these key groups, for example through their “State of Camino” annual address to principals and staff, where they share updates on the organization’s direction, how things are going, and refinements that have been made.

Expect that things won’t go perfectly as planned, and adapt
We’ve discussed Emergent Strategy in a past post, and it simply means strategies change and evolve. You will inevitably have some unrealized strategies (let those go), but you will also have realized strategies (keep these going) and emergent strategies (seize these opportunities). What’s important is recognizing this reality, learning from what’s working and isn’t, and adapting, while still focused on long-term impact.

It takes investment, but it’s worth it
Even from the few highlights listed above, it’s clear that implementation requires a lot of hard work. It can’t all fall on one person, and the leadership team that drives this work needs the time and capacity to carry through with it. Proactively preparing during the planning process can help, and taking the time to develop key tools can go a long way towards supporting implementation (e.g. an implementation roadmap that is regularly updated; an Impact Formula framework (aka Theory of Change); a performance dashboard at the Board-level and management-level).

Camino’s hard work is paying off—they’re serving more students, growing to additional campuses, engaging the community in exciting ways (such as through La Caminata), and getting recognized for it; they received Charter School of the Year from the California Charter Schools Association (see press release here). To learn more about how you can execute your strategic plan using an implementation roadmap, check out this briefing and to learn more about making your strategic plan a living document, you can explore our resources page.