Posts from the ‘Impact & Strategy’ Category

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.

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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%.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Effectively visualize your impact using these 6 principles

Through their masters course at Pepperdine, Way-Ting and Jenni are teaching social entrepreneurs to think about, measure, and evaluate their organizations' impact. I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a class session, which focused on data visualization.

By following these six principles, whether you are communicating about a foundation, nonprofit, or, in the case of this course, a budding social enterprise, you’ll be primed to effectively marry "the head and the heart" to communicate your value and tell your impact story.

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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!

Impact Thinking: How Does Your Organization Compare?

by Jennifer Shen (11/26/14)

Thank you all for the incredible response to part one of our Impact Thinking brief!  Some say this paper has made them think about impact amidst rapid growth, others have used it to launch discussions of overall organizational effectiveness. We are thrilled to have ignited a conversation around the critical mindset we call “impact thinking.”

Impact thinking is an organization’s longer-term, holistic view of achieving its desired social impact. It is characterized by continuous learning and accountability practices that deliberately, doggedly, and effectively measure performance against intended impact. In part one of this briefing, we explain why impact thinking can be challenging and examine some common misconceptions.

Your feedback got us wondering: where are others on the path to impact thinking? Let us know where you or your organization falls, and see where your peers rated themselves by participating in the poll below!

[polldaddy poll=8459046]

 

We know you’re excited to read part two of the briefing (we are too!), so we will be publishing it in mid-December. In part two, we’ll share how you can get “un-stuck” from limiting practices and become an impact thinker, some of the benefits you can expect, and leading examples of impact thinking in the sector. Stay tuned!

Nurture Your Inner Learner With Three McAdam Award Finalists

by Taylor Chamberlin 9/1/14 (updated 10/8/14)

Have you read any inspiring, insightful, or downright useful books on nonprofit management lately? If so, odds are it was a nominee  for The Terry McAdam Book Award. This annual award program, which honors Terry McAdam, who devoted his life to improving the nonprofit management field, selects the nonprofit sector book that best shares knowledge and builds the social change movement. Blue Garnet’s Jennifer Shen is thrilled to be a member of the selection committee, which announced a winning nominee at The Alliance for Nonprofit Management National Conference on September 17-19th in Austin, Texas.

We at Blue Garnet have an innate love of learning, so we strive to cultivate a similar curiosity in others. That means it’s that time of year once again (see last year’s posts here and here) to nurture your inner learner by sharing the 2014 McAdam Book Award finalists.

Creating Value in Nonprofit-Business Collaborations book coverCreating Value in Nonprofit-Business Collaborations: New Thinking and Practice (by James E. Austin and M. May Seitanidi)

Everywhere you turn, the nonprofit sector is buzzing about how collaboration can improve the work that we do. This timely and important contribution answers the all-important question, “What the heck is a value proposition?”, then gives practical advice for thinking about partnerships through a collaborative value framework. Austin and Seitanidi have a “pracademic” approach, sharing insights and guidance by balancing case studies, evidence of effectiveness, and storytelling. You can read more about transformational nonprofit-business partnerships by purchasing their book here.

Content Marketing for Nonprofits Book Cover

Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money (by Kivi Leroux Miller)

In this outcomes-focused world, it is critical to know how to effectively share your story. Content Marketing for Nonprofits can serve as your handbook on creating a communication strategy that will help you climb up the “engagement ladder” to inspire behavioral change. Many organizations find creating a marketing strategy intimidating, but Miller’s approach makes communications mapping accessible.  You can purchase Content Marketing for Nonprofits here!

 The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook book coverThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvemen(by Jayne Cravens)

Volunteers are critical to the success of many nonprofits, but all too often organizations don’t have a strategy in place for volunteer management. We believe that meaningful volunteer engagement can become a strategic advantage– we even highlighted our partnership with a foundation helping to build volunteer management capacity in our last newsletter. We were heartened to see a guidebook with up-to-date insights and advice on integrating online activities into volunteer management, especially considering the rapid change and innovation of the last decade. If you seek a easy-to-use and forward-thinking guide to integrated volunteer involvement, look no further! You can purchase The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook here.

Now it’s your turn: Have you read anything lately that you think deserves an award? What do you think about the 2014 McAdam Book Award finalists? Let us know by commenting below!

Update: the winner is…drumroll please… Kivi Leroux Miller for Content Marketing for Nonprofits! Read more about her work and this year’s McAdam Book Awards here. Congrats Kivi!

Balance Realism and Idealism by Embracing Your Inner “Corporate Idealist”

Our "BFF" Christine Bader shares her thoughts on Corporate Idealists in an adapted excerpt of her book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil.

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Beyond Satisfaction, Learn What Your Clients Value

Who really does client surveys these days? Well, we do! And most other learning organizations. Find out what we learned from ours, and how we are using it to help serve our clients and the sector better.

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