Mario Morino on “Underperformance in Philanthropy” Debate

My column about Leap of Reason, Give Smart and idea that “underperformance is the natural state of philanthropy” set off a debate among readers. Both Mario Morino, the author of Leap of Reason and Tom Tierney, the author of Give Smart, weighed in with comments that I want to highlight here.

By Mario Morino

Although this is Sean’s blog, I wanted to interject myself to offer a quick note of thanks to those who took the time to post in response to Sean’s column. I’m in agreement with most of the comments I read.

For example, I agree with Prentice Zinn that all different types of orgs—nonprofit, for-profit, and public alike–struggle with performance. However, in my experience, the concept of “performance management” is more widely understood and accepted—if not always practiced—in the for-profit sector than in the nonprofit and government sectors.

I also agree with Zinn’s comment that “a high performing organization defined by that narrow set of indicators, metrics, market forces, etc., can still pollute the planet, violate the laws of the land, disrupt economies, and pillage the commons.” If you take a look at Leap of Reason, you’ll see that we spend a lot of ink decrying the many ways in which narrow metrics have been elevated above mission. Here’s one snippet:

“I’ve witnessed some misguided efforts—often foisted on nonprofits by funders—that have produced unintended negative consequences that go beyond the waste of money. In these cases, funders have turned assessment into an exercise focused on cold numbers … rather than using it to help nonprofit leaders achieve lasting impact for those they serve.”

But this is not a reason to give up on collecting relevant data. Mission and metrics are not mutually exclusive. In Leap of Reason, we include a number of good examples of nonprofit leaders who illustrate that being information-based is fully compatible with being mission-driven.

Similarly, Christine Egger is right when she points out that leaders need to be accountable to “those they serve.” I think this is an outstanding point. To me, ensuring that we’re truly helping those we serve is truly THE NUMBER ONE reason for investing in performance management. In the book, we highlight both organizations that are doing an exemplary job of collecting and using information to improve the lives of those they serve as well as counterexamples in which nonprofits settle for mediocrity or cause potential harm to those who have given their trust.

I appreciate the discussion that has begun and look forward to continued dialogue.