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Posts from the ‘Local Events’ Category

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.

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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Changing Colors for Social Change?

What do color-changing toothpaste, noise-reducing pillows, and retractable keychains have in common? They are upcoming business ideas from bright local Los Angeles high school students! A recap of the event that will send 3 finalists to Silicon Valley to compete at the national level...

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