Social Innovation at Scale

Monitor Institute highlights the value of helping mature organizations stay adaptive and increase their social impact.

In our past three posts, we’ve made the general argument for funding social innovation at scale rather than only scaling social innovation. But the real value of this work can only be understood through the individual stories of the larger-scale organizations that are now charting a new course to greater impact and newfound relevance. Monitor Institute’s work with UNCF began two years ago as an organizational transformation effort to take it from “good to great.” CEO Michael Lomax describes a long history of accomplishment at the organization: close to 70 years raising funds for member colleges, 40 years redefining the African-American education narrative through the “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign, and decades of government affairs work to sustain support for African-American students and historically black colleges and universities (known as HBCUs). Lomax saw it as having a well-known brand and a robust community of donors. But it was facing a number of challenges to its future success: its funders were migrating away from higher education and unrestricted giving; it was having difficulty reconciling the perspectives of various stakeholders; and, it was struggling to maintain relevance in the face of a dynamic education reform movement largely led from outside the African-American community.

Creating a roadmap for change. Several years prior to our engagement, UNCF adopted a “Three Pillar Strategy” consisting of: 1) building the capability of member colleges, 2) providing scholarship and programmatic support to students, and 3) advocacy. We conducted an in-depth organizational assessment against this strategy and identified nine areas that needed to be addressed. We found that understanding of—and support for—the three pillars was uneven across stakeholder groups, and the advocacy strategy in particular was not well defined. We also found that while UNCF had a compelling mission and vision, the overarching definition of success was dollars raised, not social impact created. Through a series of facilitated discussions and a goal-setting process, we helped UNCF define a “north star” of closing the African-American college completion gap, and prioritized all organizational initiatives based on contribution to this goal. We are now developing a dashboard to define and track metrics across the three pillars of the strategy and to connect the programmatic work to their north star.

Additionally, we focused on the “advocacy” pillar, helping UNCF develop a much broader strategy for engaging in the K-16 educational landscape both nationally and locally. UNCF has long advocated on behalf of African-American students and HBCUs, but its work focused on sustaining federal funding for HBCUs and was entirely focused on post-secondary education. We determined that this work was critical but not sufficient, given that only five percent of African-Americans test as “college ready” in all four core subjects. Without addressing the crisis in the K-12 pipeline, African-Americans will likely continue to struggle to complete college, and HBCUs will struggle to raise their graduation rates. Going forward, in addition to its existing work, UNCF will elevate awareness of the college-readiness crisis in the African-American community and make the case for change through its national media platforms. On the local level, UNCF will empower communities to drive local reform by building coalitions between community leaders and other partners, and by bringing its national and local assets to bear to drive change. UNCF has already begun piloting this local, place-based approach in New Orleans and Chicago.

Aligning the organization around the strategy. The overarching theme of our organizational work was tearing down silos and creating greater alignment among stakeholder groups. Silos existed everywhere—between headquarters and field fundraising, between corporate and institutional board members, and between internal departments. This divided structure culminated in ten senior leaders who were individually managed by the CEO. We started by tackling that challenge, first rebranding the senior staff from the “cabinet” to the “leadership team” and defining its role as managing cross-organizational collaboration. To help reset their relationships, we backed up their new goal with a leadership development curriculum that focused on building individual leadership skills and deepening trust across the team. Then we worked with the CEO and board chair on governance: first eliminating the two-tier structure that had prevented institutional directors from being full participants, then launching a new committee on development and reconstituting the strategy committee to create a forum for discussing ongoing strategic choices. Finally, we moved to the C-suite, creating an Office of the President in which the CEO leads external work, the COO manages all internal functions, and a chief of staff directs cross-organizational initiatives. These organizational changes were designed to help drive greater success in implementing the new strategy. As a result, the organization now has a high-functioning leadership structure that aligns with its new strategy.

Focusing the fundraising model. UNCF has a long history of corporate and foundation support. But the nature of philanthropy is changing, with corporate donors now using grantmaking to extend their brand strategies, and all donors placing greater emphasis on impact and results. To be more effective in this environment, nonprofits need much more sophisticated donor management tools and strong, data-driven narratives. An important piece of our fundraising work with UNCF was to develop an organization-wide, collaborative approach to developing and managing strategic donor relationships. We also strengthened fundraising effectiveness by instilling greater discipline in the design and execution of special events, prioritizing key geographies for solicitation, and defining the capabilities required to cultivate high-net-worth donors.

Early signs of success. While implementation of these initiatives at UNCF is still taking place, a number of important outcomes are already emerging from this work. First, by defining a big and audacious goal as its north star, UNCF has made it clear that transforming student outcomes is its ultimate goal. If UNCF delivers impact for students by strengthening the K-12 pipeline and getting more African Americans to and through college, its member colleges will benefit and its attractiveness to donors will increase. With a clearer articulation of its north star, UNCF has been able to quantify the impact of its work and make decisions about what it will and will not do. It has reallocated leadership and management responsibilities in a way that allows for greater focus and stronger performance, and has made targeted investments to create more robust capabilities in its marketing and advocacy teams. Critically, UNCF is also engaging its tough strategic, governance, and organizational questions with greater openness, transparency, and rigor than ever before.

Change comes slowly to the sprawling and government-dominated field of education, and it will take time for the new work of UNCF to be reflected in the goal of increasing the number of African American college graduates. However, the early indicators are positive, and we are optimistic that UNCF is positioned to honor its legacy, accelerate its impact, and sustain itself far into the future.