Monday, June 13, 2011

Managing to…What?

Regular readers of this blog (hi mom!) know that I’m not a big fan of jargon. I think it muddles thoughts and distracts from real issues, and encourages isolation within a field. Nonprofit and funding jargon is especially annoying to me because this sector needs all the clear thinking and new ideas it can get. (To read a great piece on this, read “In Other Words” by Tony Proscio. Free pdf here.)

So, when the first draft of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, written by VPP Chairman Mario Morino with essays by several people in the VPP community, came across my desk, I groaned inside and steeled myself in preparation for all the words and phrases that I was sure to encounter: “culture of effectiveness,” “mission measurement,” “human capital,” “performance management,” and of course, “watershed moment.” 

“Managing to outcomes?” I thought. “I’m supposed to help distribute this book (available in pdf for free online, on Amazon for a small handling fee and in Kindle form for $1. Tell your friends!!!) with a title that’s going to get me blank stares. Awesome.”

Reading through the book, though, made me realize I was quick to judge. (I’m a millennial, after all, and I went to a liberal arts school full of snotty liberals.) Yes, “managing to outcomes” is a fuzzy term (which Morino admits in the first few paragraphs of the book), but that’s because what the book is talking about is some fuzzy, heady stuff. Morino and the other contributors have tapped into some very elemental and pressing problems in the nonprofit sector. The book touches on funder accountability, the overhead ratio problem, the need to recruit talented employees, capital stream constraints, technology system implementation, changing an organizational culture, etc. etc. These problems are interconnected, but have no overarching name to describe them. (I guess except for “things that are complicated.”)

The name Morino and the other contributors have given to the solution of these problems is the phrase that caused me panic as someone tasked with distributing it to the outside world—“manage to outcomes.” The way I see it, this book’s underlying message of managing to outcomes is this:

You need to collect the data to figure out how you are doing, and then make changes to do it better. Even if you find you are doing some amount of good, you always need to keep tabs and keep improving.

This is seemingly simple, and if you read the book (which you can get here, here and here—Tell your friends!!) you’ll see that for some organizations, it can be relatively simple and cost-effective in the short- and long-run. In other cases, it will require a complete organizational culture shift, significant investments of time and money, and asking yourself some pretty difficult questions. However, all organizations can begin to “manage to outcomes” in some ways, which shows the potential for this to catch on, and the potential for some real benefits. 

The truth is is that many nonprofits (and funders) don’t know how they are doing, and they don’t know the changes needed to make their programs more efficient and effective. The reasons for this are numerous, but I think they stem from the general feelings about charity as something supplemental to society, and not integral and necessary. Morino is really calling for us all to get serious as a society about social change and get shit done

The words found in this book are the same words that swim through most writing of the nonprofit sector, and I’m realizing that that’s maybe because what we are dealing with is hard to talk about. We all want to get stuff done in the best way possible, we just don’t always know the best way to say it. I’ll always advocate for clearer writing and speaking (who wouldn’t?) but I honestly don’t have better vocabulary for these jargon-y words that keep popping up all around me. I hope as things in the sector become more standardized, jargon will be pinned down and forced into one definition or another. That way, we can move beyond figuring out what we are talking about and start figuring out how to use these words to do stuff better.

I’ll end with a quote from Morino’s post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review Opinion blog, adapted from the book:

We need to rethink, redesign, and reinvent the why, what, and how of our work in every arena from education to healthcare to public safety...We need to reassess where we have the greatest needs so we can apply our limited resources to have the most meaningful impact. We need to be much clearer about our aspirations, more intentional in defining our approaches, more rigorous in gauging our progress, more willing to admit mistakes, more capable of quickly adapting and improving—all with an unrelenting focus and passion for improving lives.

It’s not longer good enough to make the case that we’re addressing real needs. We need to prove that we’re making a real difference.

You can’t argue with those words.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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