Posts from the ‘Accountability for Results’ Category

Taking Stock: Turning Inward on Your Racial Justice Journey, Part 1

Shannon Johnson / September 2020

(This is part 5 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: introduction, taking a systems view, getting proximate, defining goals, and taking stock Part 2)

The Blue Garnet team is encouraged that a large number of people and organizations have been sparked into action in response to the current racial justice movement. We’ve seen numerous organizations publish “diversity and inclusion” statements, or share their  ideas on how to make their organization more equitable.  We think this is a great first step – in fact, our last blog focused on developing a long-term vision for racial justice.

Yes – we are encouraged…or maybe cautiously optimistic is more accurate. We don’t want this racial justice movement to mirror what happened last year with the Business Roundtable’s “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.” When 187 CEOs of major public corporations promised to “deliver value” to all STAKEholders, not just SHAREholders, it was considered a major milestone in corporate social responsibility (also noted in another BG blog). However, just one year later, the statement has been called a scam and “should be viewed largely as a PR [public relations] move rather than as the harbinger of a major change.”    

Please don’t let that happen here – this moment is too important. We need to hold ourselves accountable to doing better for racial justice. It’s time to transition from PR statements to action, and every journey starts with a single step.

In our experience, your first step should be to “take stock,” starting first with yourself, and then for your organization. As an individual— you need to understand the facts and history around systemic racism in the United States, recognize unconscious or implicit biases you hold (we all do!), and address your relationship with our racist systems. These are critical steps in mitigating our individual attitudes and actions. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we all have implicit biases and the vast majority of us are racist to some degree. And while structural racism may not be our fault, it falls upon us to address it and its impact on our community. A higher level of personal preparation better positions you to lead any transformational work on racial justice in your organization.

Taking stock individually often involves turning inward with a few questions:

  1. What is my personal relationship with systemic racism and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) populations?
  2. What are my own implicit biases and blind spots?
  3. How does this show up in my life? Through my (implicit and explicit) attitudes and actions, how have I contributed to, or alleviated, the impact of systemic racism?
  4. What antidotes and changes do I need to take on, so that I might be a more effective leader in my organization and change agent in general?

This deep reflection is a journey, and it’s not easy – it will cause discomfort, but we need to forgo the right to comfort. Tema Okun, social justice advocate and facilitator, writes:

 “Understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning; welcome it as much as you can; deepen your political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture; don’t take everything personally.

At Blue Garnet, we’ve made some space for members of our community (clients and fellow team members) to take on this self-reflection. Here are some recommendations for how you might support this deeply personal, and profoundly important, journey:

  • Be humble and acknowledge that there is a lot that you don’t know. Take this Harvard assessment to help uncover your implicit biases.
  • Do your best to actively listen and learn. Review and reflect on Tema Okun’s characteristics of White Supremacy Culture (note these are applicable to all dominant and existing systems, not just for white individuals). Some of our other favorite resources include Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 training, the “Seeing White” Podcast, Awake to Woke to Work training, and Community Coalition-South LA activist training.  Looking for more? Check out Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation-Los Angeles and Racial Equity Resource Guide to find additional racial equity organizations, guides, workshops, and resources.
  • Be vulnerable and open to feedback. While it may be uncomfortable, encourage a trusted friend (or, to avoid tokenizing, find an “accountability partner”) to illuminate your blind spots. Ask clarifying questions to understand. Speak for yourself and share your experience with others.
  • Expand your “community” and connect with people that are different from you to broaden your perspectives and get external feedback; get plugged in.
  • Know that you can change your personal (and eventually, organizational) behaviors and practices, as Dr. Bryant Marks, Sr. encourages leaders through his training efforts nationally.

 

Self-reflection and learning are ongoing disciplines, and the Blue Garnet team is right beside you. What self-reflection tips or resources would you add? If you need a coach or accountability partner during this journey (or just have some questions), please don’t hesitate to reach out.

 

As a leader in your organization, your individual journey will ultimately cross into your organization’s journey. When it does, don’t forget to “take stock” there, too. We know the asks above are a lot to process, so we’ve broken this blog into 2 parts. In Part 2, we’ll turn to “Taking Stock” at your organization. Sneak peek: we share perspective and resources on these 5 questions:

  1. How has systemic racism impacted your organization?
  2. Who are you hiring, and how are you orienting and developing them to support a culture of racial equity?
  3. [For philanthropies] Who are you funding, and are you investing in organizations led by people most proximate to the challenges of their communities?
  4. How are you resourcing your efforts to center racial equity?
  5. How will you manage this organizational transformation to center racial equity?

 

For more on racial justice from Blue Garnet, check out our other essays in this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.2.

Defining the Dream

Madeline Stewart / August 2020

(This is part 4 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: introduction, taking a systems view, getting proximate, taking stock)

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King’s compelling dream, as shared with thousands of people on the National Mall that day in August 1963, helped so many see the future he described. His powerful imagery both harkened back to our country’s founding principles and passionately painted a vivid goal: a future in which, Dr. King envisioned, his own children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We still aren’t there yet. In 1963, Dr. King’s dream was bold and brazen. It inspired those fighting for civil rights and called out to those who benefited from our country’s status quo. In 2020, new voices are envisioning a future that is possible if we can acknowledge and address the systemic forces that got us to where we are now. This current movement for racial justice includes calls for re-imagining nearly every sector of our society—from housing to health care, from education to community safety, policing, and criminal justice.

Today’s leaders, like Dr. King, are raising an inspiring rallying cry, a call to action. Yet, for many of us, there is not an easily discernible path forward. In my time at Blue Garnet, I have grown to respect the process that it takes to put structure around this kind of ambiguity. In the movement for Black lives, we are witnessing (and participating in) that messy and uncomfortable, yet beautiful, process of defining a dream for racial justice and working toward it.

When inspired to work for change, how do we move forward toward action? How do we enter into the process?

One of the first steps is to define the future that want to see. We need to get specific. At Blue Garnet, we aim to “begin with the end in mind,” referencing one of business icon Stephen Covey’s core principles. “To begin with the end in mind,” according to Covey, “means to start with a clear understanding of your destination.” For an organization, a clear definition of their DEI and other racial equity goals—rooted deeply in their mission and work—will empower members of the organization to navigate toward that more equitable future.

Today, many are looking to take action for racial justice in a way that is grounded in their own organization’s mission. Let’s take the example of increasing the diversity of your organization’s board of trustees. While a worthy goal, simply aiming to “diversify the Board” is not enough. We must drive to clarity on what achieving this goal would look like. What elements of diversity are we talking about? (Race, gender, age, representativeness of the population served, etc.?) If we aim to increase the racial diversity of the board, what is the numeric, measurable goal we hope to achieve? By when?

The goal itself will determine what strategies and actions are needed to bring that goal to life. Consider what it would mean to build a board comprised of 50% Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—versus a board comprised of 10% BIPOC. While either of these may be an increase from the present board representation, the effort and action needed to achieve the former goal may be quite different than the strategies to achieve the latter.

To help you begin with the end in mind and define your organization’s dream for equity, start by asking questions such as:

  • What would racial equity look like for, and at, our organization, in light of our mission?
  • How will we know when we’ve achieved it?
  • With our mission in mind, what outcomes and real impact will serve to move the needle on racial justice?

As a reminder, your Board and executive leadership should not define your organization’s dream in isolation. At Blue Garnet, we seek to include the voices of all stakeholders when setting organizational goals. Once the goals are clarified—with buy-in from the community and other partners—you can then turn to implementation, or what we refer to as “making it real.”

Your vivid dream of increased equity will be a galvanizing force at your organization and for the people whom you serve. With a distinct target in mind, you can work to map out the various steps and interim milestones needed to achieve the overarching goal. With those in place, you can then define the tasks and people who need to be involved to make each step happen. Please reach out with your thoughts and reactions, or if you would like our help articulating your organizational goal and navigating the changes that it may bring.

This is your moment—our moment—to define a more just future for your organization, your community, and our country. “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness,” as Dr. King intoned in his Mountaintop sermon. “Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”

 

For more on racial justice from Blue Garnet, check out these other posts in our summer blog series.

Just Ask: Going to the Source for Real Learning

Way-Ting Chen / July 2020

(This is part 3 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: introduction, taking a systems view, defining goals, taking stock)

I have a postcard from 2008 that came with a book called Seeing Beyond Sight. It’s a book of photography taken by teenagers who are blind or nearly-blind. This postcard shares a simple, yet powerful, interchange:

Question to blind student photographer: How do you not cut people’s heads off in a photo?

Answer: Just ask the person where they are.

It’s as simple as that– you ask them. All the advanced technology and research analytics, the business theory and social work courses, the talk of growth mindset and emotional intelligence… It all comes down to this: You ask them.

Over the years, the power of this message remains strong, and is internalized in the way Blue Garnet pursues our work. We support our client and other community partners in asking questions to a full range of stakeholders– grantees, participants, beneficiaries, customers, staff, volunteers, etc. The purpose is always to learn, in a real and useful way.

So here we are. Society is at an inflection point, and I find this message even more resonant and relevant. Our sector is asking: What is the impact of systemic racism on those that we serve? On those with whom we partner? What biases do we hold and extend when recruiting staff and volunteers, including Board members? How do we ensure that our work goes beyond immediate service of our mission, and pivots toward antiracist, groundwater solutions? (see our last blog) Though our questions may have evolved, the way to find answers remains the same: You ask them. Or, as lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, you “get proximate.”

Effective learning requires being intentional about to whom and how we ask our questions, and also what we do with the things we hear. Getting proximate often means going beyond the first-level analysis (in the consulting world, sometimes called the “Survey Monkey summary”). To really learn and take action, it is critical to look deeper and disaggregate data. And be wary of stats that paint a broad picture for the whole population, like a country’s GDP, infant mortality, and unemployment, graduation, and literacy rates. When we dig deeper into the data, we often see different stories by segment—like how COVID disproportionally affects Black and Brown communities.

For various reasons, the social sector tends not to prioritize ongoing learning from primary sources. Or, perhaps more accurately, fails to allocate the resources needed to truly get proximate with critical issues and marginalized groups. In contrast, for-profit companies frequently and regularly invest significant dollars on “market research” and the “user experience” (UX)– to them, it’s a matter of keeping abreast of often-changing customer needs. Many in the social sector instead lean on ad hoc experiences and personal assumptions of community needs, or the ‘listening’ notes from a strategic planning process 5 years ago.

Of course, that is not true of the entire social sector. There are myriads of ways to get proximate. Below are just a few examples of how our partners have invested in engaging “the source,” and how their learnings helped them better their organizations and pursue their missions. (To prompt your thinking, I included a few pointed reflection questions.)

Here’s what getting proximate can look like:

  • A nonprofit serving people with disabilities, ensuring access was not a barrier to hearing participant voices. Their first client and patient survey in years was delivered in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc.) and modalities (electronic, paper, and person-assisted), accommodating various levels of ability.
    • How do you consider and combat ableism when developing surveys?
    • How far are you willing to go to ensure that marginalized voices are heard?
  • A funder supporting scholarships and career-development for first-generation college students, creating safe spaces for feedback on its program. Results from our focus groups with participating students directly clarified the theory of change, helped inform program ambition, and grounded funder and program partners’ expectations.
    • How do you ensure the voice of your beneficiaries are at the table, when evaluating program impact and refining its design?
    • How do you conduct stakeholder engagement in a way that is understandable and relevant to the audience, while yielding honest and informative feedback?
  • A regional funder under new leadership, establishing a baseline understanding of internal capabilities, culture, and challenges. By engaging a third party and offering creative incentives, their first staff survey secured 100% participation, allowing us to analyze the confidential results by departments, tenure, title, and other characteristics. Insights gathered helped focus and prioritize leadership’s internal work in the first year.
    • Where are potential pockets of both energy and dissatisfaction in your organization?
    • How do staff of varying perspectives experience your organization differently? To what extent do race, gender and other characteristics affect these experiences?
  • A local university, engaging formal partners and local neighbors to address a thorny town and gown issue. Gathering input from across the stakeholder spectrum, we conducted intercept surveys from surrounding neighborhoods. Disaggregating data geographically built a richer understanding of the impacts, challenges, and priorities of different areas.
    • What is the impact of your work on those around you?
    • Is it the same or different across stakeholders? How do you know?

Remember, going to the source is not a one-off thing. It takes genuine commitment, willingness to invest in the process, and discipline to follow through. It’s hard work, yet absolutely necessary to build buy-in and maximize your impact. So, let’s continue to invest in the process of learning. Let’s go to the source. Let’s make sure we are getting proximate. As the credo often used by disability advocates goes: “Nothing About Us without Us.” After all, democracy is a process, not an outcome.

Does this jog your thinking? Do you have more questions, or are you ready to get going? Please let us know at hello@bluegarnet.net! We’re just a (virtual) conversation away.

On being a generalist in a specialist world

There’s a lot to be said about having deep, expert knowledge. And the world is on a trajectory that points to specialized knowledge as powerful and valuable.

Maybe it’s the liberal arts background in me, or the unquenchable curiosity that I have, but it’s hard for me NOT to take a blended, interdisciplinary approach toward most things – including social Impact. There’s power in combining the lessons we’ve learned from for- and non-profit sectors across all types of industries.

Being a social impact consulting firm, we at Blue Garnet are often pulled into discussions with organizational leaders regarding strategy and evaluation. The vast majority of the time, these are separate conversations:

  • Conversation 1: What can we do to take our mission achievement to the next level? How do we make the most impact?
  • Conversation 2: What is our “impact story”? How do we demonstrate the impact that we are having and/or can have?

In the social sector, we tend to pick up and put on our “strategist” hat or our “evaluation and learning” hat. And we start our conversation on one or the other. But the fact is, strategy and evaluation are, and should be, mutually reinforcing. They are the yin and yang of social impact. They are the same hat.

We recently listened to a webinar from CNM on their survey of the nonprofit sector in Southern California. Among their interesting findings, they found that one of the top five priorities for nonprofit leaders is to conduct evaluations and outcomes measurements. And as evaluation and learning partners to our clients, we are very excited to hear this! That said, organizations that align strategy and evaluation can create greater, and more measurable, impact. Blue Garnet strives to expand and guide our clients in broader discussion on how to best make meaningful change—integrating strategy and evaluation into one conversation from the start.

Of course, aligning strategy and evaluation can be challenging. These are distinct disciplines that are often siloed and need to be bridged. This work is also messy and non-linear, requiring patience and continued support.

But fear not! It is actually possible and, in fact, highly worth it. How? By starting with the end in mind and relying on a growth mindset.

Intrigued? Check out this video of a workshop I gave at UCLA Anderson. If you have a good chunk of time, I invite you to watch the whole thing (in my completely unbiased opinion, I think it’s pretty educational!) If you want to delve into some specific examples, the first example about a charter school system considering scaling starts at 26:55. Also, stay tuned for an upcoming blog on concrete tips for putting into action integrating strategy formation and evaluation and learning!

We need both generalists and specialists to solve our world’s complex problems; both bring unique strengths to the table. The good news – we make great partners!  We can bridge disciplines to make and measure more change, and you bring the deep knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Feel free to drop a line to talk more! way-ting@bluegarnet.net

 

 

 

 

Blue Garnet’s pro tips for every social enterprise

 

By Sofia Van Cleve

Building an impactful social enterprise is far from easy. Through the ups and downs of Blue Garnet’s 15+ years working in social impact consulting and building our own social enterprise, we’ve learned some huge lessons in social entrepreneurship the hard way. In late April, we had the chance to talk about these learnings at Social Enterprise Alliance-LA’s new event, the Professional Services Night. Along with six other volunteering organizations—spanning social media, tech, law, and strategy consulting—Blue Garnet was happy to provide our pro bono help to the participants.

 

The creativity and passion we saw during the night got us super excited about new social enterprises in LA and wanting to share some tips with social entrepreneurs at large. Our co-founder, Way-Ting Chen, and the attendees explored how to improve their existing organizations or build their entrepreneurial dream with an eye for impact. Daniel Nash, a music composer and web designer, said Way-Ting’s help was “Phenomenal—I got the next steps for my business idea and steps down the line that I had no idea about. She helped me think ahead and know what resources I need to connect with and when I will need them.” We loved chatting with people like Daniel (and not just because he gave us the nicest compliment in the entire world!), but we don’t want to be stingy with our advice. So we’re going “open source” with our recommendations, hoping they’ll help other social enterprises out there, too.

 

If you want to maximize your impact and develop a high-performing organization, you need to make sure your organization has the following four components.

What You Need to Know About Impact as a Social Entrepreneur:

  1. Organizational clarity: Start with the end in mind. What impact are you trying to achieve through your social enterprise? What are the top three things YOU need to do really well to get there?
  2. Shared Leadership: Bring others on board to do this together and build your team to complement your strengths.
  3. Healthy Economics: Align your business model to your goals by focusing on who your target client is, what you offer them that truly makes a difference, and how you can afford to do so over time.
  4. Accountability for Results: Define your 10 key measures of success related to both impact and performance. Gather and analyze relevant data for insight, then iterate your strategy.

It’s okay if you don’t have all of these right now. The good news is that you can build them over time. If you have questions or want to build these for your organization, please contact us at sofia@bluegarnet.net.

 

We hope that the Services Night and Blue Garnet sharing these four tenants of impact will inspire social entrepreneurs in LA and beyond!

 


A special thanks to SEA-LA and Danny Brown for organizing this event, and West Monroe Partners for hosting! Thanks also to Daniel Nash for your incredibly kind words (we’re still blushing!).

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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