For funders trying to create large-scale social change—whether it’s making sure all children in a city can succeed or improving the environment—developing leaders who can clearly define and manage toward results is an essential first step in getting the best possible return on investment. All too often, in the rush to get started on an initiative leaders overlook the importance of defining and naming the result they seek. Failing to do so can undermine their efforts from the beginning.
Naming a result means stating clearly what success looks like—giving partners, grantees, and others an aspirational target against which they can align their leadership. It literally puts everyone on the same page so everyone is clear about what they are working together to achieve. This requires leaders to look beyond their specific programs and organizations and focus on the larger population that can benefit from their work.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s results-based leadership approach is our effort to create such leaders. It guides groups of leaders from across a sector, community, or initiative to define their population—which might be all children in a city—and then helps those leaders discuss the big vision they would most like to see become a reality for all of those children. For example, during a results-based leadership program leaders from the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, a Promise Neighborhoods community of 30 partners and nine schools, chose to focus on the following result: “All students are proficient in core academic subjects.” Two other communities have focused on these results: “All children in Baltimore are ready to succeed in school,” and “All returning offenders in Marion County are integrated into their communities.”
Reaching agreement about the desired result also helps leaders collaborate. This requires being clear about the contribution each partner is making—constantly using data to measure progress and re-examine their alignment—just as you’d do to make sure all the parts of your car are working together to get you down the road. Each partner can then see how its work fits in. This process often begins with “data walks,” in which a group tours a room filled with large data charts that show trends affecting the overall population and groups within it. Seeing and analyzing the data helps groups of leaders define the path to a chosen result. Leaders learn to make action commitments and to keep themselves accountable. A tool called the Accountability Pathway can help partners tackle difficult conversations about progress and help stalled work move ahead.
Finally, starting with the end in mind helps leaders set benchmarks, track success, and collectively measure progress. Three simple questions outlined in Mark Friedman’s book, Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, can help funders and nonprofit and public agency leaders assess their progress:
- How much are we doing?
- How well are we doing it?
- What difference are we making?
Answering these questions requires leaders to establish and revisit a baseline, often using a version of the data that appeared on the walls during the group’s data walk. In the Minneapolis Northside Achievement Zone the partners determined that the percentage of children who could read at or above grade level at third grade would be a key indicator of success. Baseline data for 2010 showed only 27 percent of children in the neighborhood were reading at or above the third-grade level. The leaders then turned to research that shows that children in low-income families can lose an average of more than two months in reading achievement over the summer. A summer learning program was implemented and has shown early signs of success. Of the 250 children in the 2013 summer program, 56 percent completed the program reading at or above grade level, an increase of 15 percentage points.
Starting with the end in mind not only helps make a leader’s direction clear in a complicated world of competing priorities. It also helps funders better understand what can be done to help those leaders strengthen the skills and knowledge needed to achieve those results. Ultimately, developing leaders who can define results well and achieve them is an important step on the path to creating social change.