Is Underperformance Philanthropy’s ‘Natural State’?

June 27, 2011 | Chronicle of Philanthropy
By Sean Stannard-Stockton

The nonprofit world is full of technocratic conversations about how to measure and improve results. But two new books, Leap of Reason, by Mario Morino, and Give Smart, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel Fleishman, make the argument that the key to progress is not a new technical solution but a new mind-set by both donors and nonprofits.

In Give Smart, Mr. Fleishman and Mr. Tierney—both longtime advisers to donors and nonprofits—make a startling (but accurate) claim that the “natural state” of philanthropy is one of underperformance.

In discussing the “terrible truths” that donors who seek to achieve results must face, the authors note that excellence must be self-imposed in philanthropy.

Unlike in corporate America, where weak performance will drive a company out of business, philanthropy “has no built-in systemic forces to motivate continuous improvement,” they write.

This presents an enormous barrier to success. Improving results requires making changes, and humans resist change at all costs unless there are forces that compel them to act. As the authors write, “Self-imposed accountability is not a natural act. It requires extraordinary determination and discipline to pursue outstanding results year after year when nothing in the surrounding environment requires you to do so.”

If underperformance is the natural state of philanthropy, then no clever measurement system is going to solve the problem. Instead, we must find ways to motivate donors, grant makers, and nonprofits to choose to be accountable to themselves for the results they achieve.

While everyone will happily support a call to focus on results, the message of Give Smart is that actually following through requires the determination and discipline to create self-imposed accountability. The solutions to this problem are more likely to be found in the study of psychology than the science of evaluation.

While Give Smart focuses on the need for donors to overcome their natural proclivity to underperform, Leap of Reason makes a similar case for nonprofits.

Mr. Morino, a prominent businessman who was one of the early founders of the venture-philanthropy movement, calls for nonprofits to run their organizations with the determination and discipline to produce results. Since nonprofits by and large do not get paid for producing results, the only solution is self-imposed accountability, an act as unnatural for nonprofits as it is for donors.

Leap of Reason makes clear that most nonprofits do not manage their organization to maximize results, but not due to lack of interest or passion. Instead, nonprofits face many challenges, and perhaps the most important one can be found in Give Smart: because most donors don’t make a deliberate effort to support groups based on their results.

Mr. Morino recognizes that measuring results is only a means to an end and urges readers never to confuse measurement with mission. He warns of the danger to nonprofits when outsiders foist measurement requirements on nonprofits. Far from helping nonprofits achieve results, these approaches distract them from achieving their mission.

The only path to results, for both donors and nonprofits, is to dig deep into the wellspring of passion that drives their giving and their work to find the determination and discipline they need to be accountable to themselves.

Leap of Reason is unusual among books about measuring results for nonprofits in that it is brief and practical. The main part of the book runs a mere 60 pages. Each of the short chapters ends with a section titled “Take-Homes in Tweets,” where the key points are distilled in 140 characters or fewer.

In addition to Mr. Morino’s advice, the book includes a stirring essay by Isaac Castillo, director of evaluation at the Latin America Youth Center, in Washington. Mr. Castillo discusses his organization’s determined tracking of results and how those efforts led it to make a big change in one of its programs. After the group added material on preventing domestic violence to its child-rearing classes, Mr. Castillo discovered to his horror that the lessons were increasing acceptance of domestic abuse among participants. But because the organization was regularly monitoring its results, it was able to quickly adjust the program and begin producing far more positive results.

It is a common refrain in philanthropy that giving money away is harder than making it. But Give Smart and Leap of Reason make clear that philanthropy is not just a more difficult problem than making money, it is a different kind of problem. Success in business brings with it the money needed to do more great things, but that doesn’t necessarily happen in the nonprofit world in which producing results does not automatically bring more resources.

But through our own determination and discipline, each of us—donors and nonprofits alike—can self-impose accountability. Only then will we begin to achieve great results.