In my last SSIR blog post, I mused about the potential for a Doing Good Better Initiative to find and nurture those positive-outlier nonprofits that are highly motivated to take the leap to managing to outcomes—and, over time, help make them the norm in our sector.

Here are some elements of what a “Doing Good Better” Initiative might look like:

  1. Convene a good cross-section of top leaders. The first step is to bring together a great group of nonprofit, foundation, and private sector leaders, especially those at the leading/bleeding edge of what’s possible, to explore the possibilities. The group would need to be composed of those who “have been there, done that” or are clearly engaged and working actively to adopt outcomes-based management.
  2. Gain clarity on goals. Once the group has the “right people on the bus,” it would then have to define what the Doing Good Better Initiative is trying to accomplish and to what end. In my view, the goals should be grounded in giving leaders the information they need to do their jobs and meet the needs of those they serve.
  3. Identify the audience. The Doing Good Better Initiative must be rigorous about specifying whom it wants to influence. It should begin by segmenting the nonprofit sector to identify characteristics of early-adopter, “believer” organizations most likely to be ripe and ready for the culture of managing to outcomes. It would then want to identify the best channels to reach these target nonprofits, their boards, and funders.
  4. Change the understanding of what’s possible. Once nonprofits and their key stakeholders get a glimpse at how the innovators at the periphery are using information to create greater impact for those they serve, they will have a hard time going back. There are many different ways to show nonprofits and funders what’s possible. For example, the group could commission a high-quality video with viral potential (e.g., the finalists in Tactical Philanthropy’s Fantastic Video Contest) to show what’s possible when nonprofits gain the power of information and what this means for the people they serve.
  5. Build knowledge. In tandem with efforts to highlight successes, the initiative should build and make accessible the knowledge base on managing to outcomes. McKinsey’s Social Sector Office has already gotten the ball rolling with an impressive repository it calls Learning for Social Impact. The site includes tools, best practices, lessons learned, profiles, interviews, landscape analyses, and historical perspectives on outcomes assessment. The Doing Good Better initiative could build on this by offering open-source tools for unleashing the wisdom of crowds to build the knowledge base on managing to outcomes.
  6. Develop common outcomes frameworks. The initiative should provide direct support for efforts to develop common frameworks in fields that best lend themselves to measurement and have enough “believers” that they could make real progress, such as early childhood development and community health.
  7. Provide education and insight. To change practices and norms among nonprofit leaders, education and training must be a key component of any plan. Doing Good Better would need to address the types of education that are relevant for the nonprofit executives it would seek to reach—including graduate education, executive education, and web-based distance learning.
  8. Provide strategic and tactical help. The number one barrier to managing outcomes is the dramatic cultural change it requires. But there is no reason an organization should have to take on this challenge alone. Over time, the sector will need to develop more consultants and foundation staff members with specialty knowledge who can help guide these major change efforts. In the meantime, it should not be difficult for the Doing Good Better Initiative to identify qualified consultants, increase transparency around their costs, enable clients to provide Amazon-like ratings of the value they add, and allow nonprofits to comparison shop more effectively than they do today.
  9. Offer financial and other incentives. Few funders today provide the kind of general operating support that nonprofits need to advance the needed cultural change and develop the technology systems and human processes for managing to outcomes. That will have to change. There is no escaping the fact that funders will need to subsidize the hard work and outside expertise that’s required to move to managing to outcomes. In its first portfolio of investments, the philanthropic investing organization I chair, Venture Philanthropy Partners, had direct investments of nearly $3 million and provided substantial strategic assistance to directly support the cultural change and development of outcome-management systems. VPP expects to invest even more with its second portfolio of nonprofit investment partners. We have learned that it can take several years for organizations, even with the kind of intensive support VPP provides, to make the quantum jump from a place of little or anecdotal measurement to a place of rigorous outcomes-based management. Funders and others must be patient during these periods of culture and staff change and development. They should not expect instant answers or improvements.

Data Voracious
“The minute our staff got a taste of data and saw how it could make jobs easier, they were voracious—more so than my former colleagues at GE,” says Year Up National Capital Region’s Executive Director Tynesia Boyea Robinson. “They saw that data allowed them to make sure they were serving young people better.”

If done right, Going Good Better could help make Year Up’s experience the norm for nonprofit organizations and their staffs. That enormous cultural shift would mean the world to the millions of families for whom “outcomes” are not an abstraction but rather a living-wage job, quality childcare, a safe home, or a good school.