Innovative ideas

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions

Tennel_Cheshire_proof
Tennel_Cheshire_proof

This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.

Four Ways to Address a Problem that Won’t Go Away

We are currently working with a client that provides services for victims of crimes, particularly victims of family violence such as domestic violence and child abuse.  Family violence is a persistent issue upon which it seems almost impossible to make a dent. And so, our client wanted to know how they can have greater impact.   To find possible approaches to answer this question, we looked at how other organizations strive to have impact in the face of an enduring, seemingly insurmountable, problem.

Four aces picture

We found four possible approaches employed by other organizations, which we coined, “go upstream,” “a banner to march behind, “expand the picture,” and “strength in numbers.” 

The National Audubon Society typifies what we called “go upstream.”  This organization began with the mission of protecting birds and their habitats.  But soon an important challenge became clear:  all habitats were increasingly impacted by climate change, leading to negative consequences for birds everywhere. The “go upstream” approach posits that one’s mission is served not only through intervention services aimed at solving certain issues, but also by working on the environmental factors which cause the issues to occur in the first place.  So, The National Audubon Society decided to “go upstream” from the bird territory and now has a more general focus on protecting the environment with the downstream goal of saving birds’ habitats.  What could this mean for our client?  Perhaps they address those things that contribute to family violence occurring in the first place, like poverty. Or, they work to prevent the perpetuation of the cycles of violence by helping abused children heal from their trauma, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will grow up to be re-victimized or will abuse others.

“A banner to march behind” is well exemplified by The March of Dimes.  The assumption behind this approach is that to make a greater difference, one must mobilize the public to develop awareness and a sense of outrage about the issue.  For The March of Dimes, the mission of decreasing birth defects and pre-term birth would not be accomplished with medical research alone, and thus The March took to the streets to get the public involved with fighting for this cause.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is also a good example of an organization which used “a banner” to realize impact, namely a significant reduction of alcohol-related traffic accidents.  Our client, therefore, could consider starting a movement to generate awareness and outrage to help combat family violence.

Terracyle is an example of “expand the picture,” which posits that to make more of a difference, one must engage all involved components of the problem to be part of the solution. Terracyle started out working to eliminate food waste by using it to create quality fertilizers.  The fertilizers reduced some waste, but landfills kept filling, and so TerraCycle sought to make a broader impact.  Today, Terracyle focuses on eliminating many kinds of waste by creating new product lines and mobilizing people to recycle.  For our client, expanding the picture could mean not just working with the primarily low-income, female population it currently serves, but adding services for batterers, wealthy victims, or victims who choose to stay in relationship with their abusers.

Finally, “strength in numbers” is typified by East Meets West (EMW).  The premise here is that one organization can’t make a significant difference on large issues by itself; working together with others with similar missions means that the impact is exponentially increased.  East Meets West started out providing grassroots humanitarian aid in Vietnam, but they soon realized the problems were too big for them to significantly affect on their ownEMW transitioned from offering humanitarian services to building a network of similar organizations that share back-office capacity and learn valuable skills from one another.  Our client could realize this approach through creating a network of similar organizations or employing a regional or national expansion strategy to have a greater impact.

The problem of a persistent societal struggle is one that many non-profits face. These four approaches show how some nonprofits have addressed such struggles in ways that can be applied by others.

Let Me Put On My New Hat

Being forced to step outside your comfort zone and take on a new perspective can help you think about something in a new way.  This isn't particularly earth-shattering news, of course, but there is an easy way to foster this kind of thinking and get staff to take a new stance.

Often, it seems like the same people in an organization consistently take on the same role; perhaps the COO’s practicality and financial mindset mean she is always concerned about funding and tends to nix ideas early on, while the Director of Strategy’s optimism translates to seeing a lot of potential in every new program idea. We all fall into patterns like this, where every new idea seems infeasible (or wonderful) and we can’t help but play devil’s advocate (or cheerleader) at every meeting.

To keep conversations fresh and staff engaged, it can be helpful to take on new roles. In Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, he suggests ways to provide different perspectives on a challenging topic. By assigning each person at a meeting (or each phase of a meeting) a different “hat”, it is possible to ensure deliberate discussion around the challenge – and how people are reacting emotionally, objectively, critically, or in other ways. Each hat has a different set of guiding questions to consider, from what information do we have or need, to how do I feel about this idea, and what could go wrong?

Based on these Six Hats, we recently facilitated a client meeting with our own adapted set of seven hats: the Analyst, Opposer, Advocate, Feeler, Connector, Questioner and Joker. Every attendee was assigned a role – and many were deliberately given roles outside their comfort zone. For example, the CEO, who admits she is often critical of new ideas, assigned herself as Advocate so she would be sure to focus on the positive side of things. We gave each attendee a little sign on a popsicle stick, with their role on one side and the questions for them to consider on the other, to continually prompt them and guide their thinking. Holding a physical sign also served as a safety blanket, allowing people to justify viewpoints that may have been out of character for them.

At the start of the meeting, some comments felt a bit canned as people tried to embody their roles (“This idea feels great”, “We don’t have the money!”), but soon, conversation became richer as attendees became comfortable with their hats. Additionally, while some people might have deferred to more senior staff at a typical meeting, the hats allowed everyone to take on a new voice and personality. There was no need to feel nervous about being critical (in the role of Analyst or Opposer), or to feel judged for supporting something simply because it felt right (as a Feeler). Ultimately, people moved around, in and out of their hats, and there was meaningful conversation with a balance of critical and positive feedback.

If you’re looking to shake up a meeting or make it more fun, try assigning your own hats to help foster interesting and creative conversation. Here are ours:

  • Analyst: Is this feasible? What does our data tell us about this idea? What does logical reasoning tell us?
  • Opposer: Why would this not work? What is wrong with this idea? What have we not considered?
  • Advocate: Why is this a good idea? How could this work?
  • Feeler: How does this idea feel? What is my gut reaction? How would it feel to our staff, Board, funders…?
  • Connector: How might these different ideas connect? Where are the places of consensus in our discussion? Where do we seem to be converging?
  • Questioner: What questions does this raise for me? What should we be asking ourselves?
  • Joker: How can humor be used to illustrate my thoughts? Can humor or sarcasm be useful to help evaluate these ideas?

Morning coffee or afternoon coffee? Which kind of non-profit are you?

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Recently, I facilitated a discussion at one of my current clients. It was the first of a series of conversations set up to develop the organization’s theory of change or, as I sometimes call this existential process, the “Why are we here?” project. One of the staff members asked a question that I have heard regularly from many of my clients: “How essential are we to our partners?” When this question is asked, I sometimes think of coffee, and specifically the rationale for drinking coffee in the afternoon. For me, and I imagine for many people, morning coffee has become a must. It’s essential in driving my productivity, especially after the long-hours of consulting, community work and family responsibilities. While I can  choose the type of morning coffee I have, I frequently select the option that is easiest to access. While it still has to be hot and somewhat fresh, my priority is its proximity and convenience.  If your gas tank is empty, you buy at the next gas station, right?

On the other hand, if I am going to have coffee in the afternoon, I’m going to enjoy this one... for me, Starbucks at the minimum; Peet’s if possible. And, yesterday, I came across what may become my new favorite – essentially a rose mochaccino. This afternoon coffee is not essential to me, but it is an indulgence that I sometimes want.

So, as clients grapple with theory of change questions, I sometimes ask: Are you morning coffee or afternoon coffee? If you are a “morning coffee” program – for example, an afterschool program that partners with schools – you likely need to sell yourself to partners on convenience and ease of service. You are already important to them and funding may be less of an issue, but there are probably plenty of options.  This means you need to be the best at seamlessly delivering what the partner needs and making it as headache free as possible. On the other hand, if you are afternoon coffee, you likely have to prove your value, and sell yourself on how you are different, how you are special; how you are the rose-syrup that I can’t get at the coffee shop down the block.

And, as my client considers the question – “How essential are we to our partners?” – I will be sure to ask their partners about how they see my client’s value proposition. If it turns out that my client offers an essential service, then we will work on the service’s convenience, so it can become an easy-to-do-business-with option.  If the partners see them as important and helpful – but not essential – we will work with our clients on being really clear on how they are differentiated, how they should be wanted even if they are not needed.

After all, both morning and afternoon coffee are valued – just for different reasons.

The Messy Business of Social Movement Funding

I recently worked for a foundation that had admirable aspirations of creating large scale social change, potentially through a social movement. As we researched the business of social movement building, it proved to be a topic mired in caveats. In speaking with various funders throughout the country, we found that organizations’ timelines for shifting toward social movement building is a great unknown. Funders seeking to fuel this kind of change are in various stages along their journey, as shown by the graphic below. Some organizations have been on this trajectory for decades, while others are just beginning. But in every case, the tactical shift to building social movements as a means to fueling societal change certainly did not happen overnight.

Messy business picture v3 5Nov14
Messy business picture v3 5Nov14

One of the primary hesitations from these funders is their resistance to leading the social movement. The big question that these funders are grappling with is “how do we make a movement happen, without being the movement?” The funders understand that a social movement cannot be dependent on one organization, but to be successful, a movement must take on a life of its own, with the vision and energy coming from the community. Foundations can fuel the movement via funds, capacity building and strategic support during the ebbing periods, but cannot be the movement itself.

Funders’ apprehension to the term “social movement building” itself also stood out. The majority of funders with whom we talked noted that this language can be counter-productive. Even if they internally understand they are using the tactics of social movement building, they use language such as collaboration, networks and ecosystem to represent their approach, while avoiding the potentially stigmatized label.

It seems that a sizeable number of funders are more thoughtfully seeking long-term, deep social changes, requiring the tactics of social movement funding. An admirable goal, foundations should be prepared for a very long-term, difficult-to-define, ever-evolving journey.

From Magic to Manuals: a Hard but Worthwhile Transition for Social Innovators

In their early days of ground-breaking social innovation, many of the innovators I have known worked out of their proverbial garage, without much in the way of strategy or funding or staff. What they often did have was a gut-sense, growing day by day, that they were on to something big.

They may not have been able to name the critical elements of their approach – whatever those elements were had a kind of magic to them – but they saw the resulting breakthroughs (as did I, working and watching alongside of them)…

We saw street kids who society had given up on re-enrolling in high school. We saw parents reading for the first time with their young children. And we saw once-neglected seniors being well cared for by their neighbors and children.

In their early days, when they had some anecdotes but no data, I have seen social innovators do well to rely on intuition, opportunism, and adrenalin to hone their approach and advance their ideas.

But fast-forward a few years to a day when the social innovation had hard data behind it, demonstrating its transformative impact. At that point, the demands on the innovator looked very different.

Where agility and opportunism once served the innovator well, now commitment to a well-considered growth strategy was needed to win support and ensure impact.

Where the almost magical quality of the program was once a part of its appeal, now the innovator needed to treat any magic as a liability that must be codified or “manualized” so the program could be broadly replicated.

Where financial considerations may not have driven the work initially, now the innovator had to make them a significant part of the equation if the innovation was to realize its full potential for impact.

I have seen these transitions be challenging and sometimes even painful for social innovators to embrace. But if the opportunity for scaling the impact is real, these transitions can be worth the cost.

Losses Loom Larger...

Do you care more about losing a dollar or gaining a dollar? If you are like most of us, losing that dollar will make you more upset than gaining that dollar will make you happy. So, you probably care more about losing a dollar. This phenomenon is known as loss aversion, or the tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In fact, research suggests that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain.

I have seen this behavioral economic theory play out in many venues. Most recently, I found myself using it to explain why a nonprofit organization with whom Wellspring was working chose not to pursue what, by all practical measures, seemed to be an attractive merger. In this recent project, our client was looking at options for a merger with a specific partner, a much larger organization in the same field that could offer – amongst other things – financial stability.

We went through the necessary diligence process to test the attractiveness of the merger, and, after a series of meetings, both leadership teams decided that there was strong alignment and identified significant opportunities for programmatic synergies. It just seemed to work.

So why didn’t it?

In the last meeting, there was a clear sense that our client was struggling with a looming sense of loss. Though the leaders saw the benefits that a merger with this partner could bring to the field overall, as well as to this organization’s financial situation, our client could not get over the loss it would feel if its brand, programs, people and/or leadership position in the field were possibly lost, or, more likely, transformed by the merged organization.

So, despite the partner’s best efforts to assure our client that its legacy would continue, the merger did not happen.

Clearly, there were a variety of factors that led to this “no-go” outcome. However, I do believe that our client’s looming sense of loss was a key contributing factor. The potential gains were clear: financial stability and exciting program synergies that would lead to greater impact. However, those were outweighed in our client’s mind by the even more powerful potential losses, especially the brand as standalone.

Ultimately, the decision not to merge may have been the right one for a host of reasons. Having said this, it is not surprising that our client focused more of its attention on the potential losses as opposed to the potential gains. We should recognize that, while we are all subject to these behavioral biases, it may be helpful to work through them by approaching our decisions with analytic rigor and, when appropriate, an outside perspective.

Counting What Counts

File:Boys Playing Basketball in Youth Park 20100314.jpg
File:Boys Playing Basketball in Youth Park 20100314.jpg

When working with the Department of Youth and Community Development in New York City, I heard an interesting story. A youth development program had been launched and kids were actively engaged in after school activities such as basketball and homework help. More kids were coming. Parents were involved. A good thing, right?

But when the rate of gang activity in the neighborhood was tracked, violence levels had increased. Digging further, it turned out that the after school program was functioning as a gang recruiting ground - older kids were enrolling the younger kids.

When the after school activities were re-structured to keep age groups separated, gang activity decreased.

More kids in a program doesn't automatically mean that you're having the impact that you want. By assessing outcomes, program structure can be adjusted to lead to the best results.

Don't Fundraise for Your Means, Fundraise for Your Ends

Money stars
Money stars

Would you donate money to help improve the skills of a teacher? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so the children in that teacher's classroom would get a better education, and would be more likely to stay in school?

Would you donate money to help a scientist track the pounds of carbon released into the atmosphere? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so that better carbon emission data from that scientist would influence public policy leading to reduced carbon emissions, and thus slow global warming?

Glynwood Center, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable land use was raising money for a program that brought  together land developers, town officials and land owners to decide on the best use of open space. When the organization asked donors to "Help us bring people together to decide on the best use of open farmland," funding support was meager. When Glynwood Center changed its message to "Help us save farmland," their funding increased dramatically.

Habitat for Humanity in Wilmington Delaware would report the number of homes built each year to its funders. When  the organization added information about the reduction in crime rates and increased employment due to their new homes, funders were more interested in providing support.

Tell your donors about the ends you are furthering -- the benefits to individuals, to society or the environment. The dollars are more likely to roll in.

Is My Organization Creating Benefit? Four types of rationale

City_Harvest_Truck
City_Harvest_Truck

I expect it is important for you to know if your organization is creating social benefit. I think about this a lot, both with the clients we serve, and for our consulting firm. Donors, funders, constituents, and employees also want to know.

Here are four different types of rationale to ascertain the benefit created by an organization. While a higher level of proof may be more desirable, it is not feasible to fully prove benefit for all activities. Thus, all four rationale can be acceptable tools to inform leaders and decision-makers.

  1. An observable, causal relationship - When City Harvest collected 46 million pounds of food from the food industry and distributed them to hungry people, there was an observable, causal relationship: hungry people have been fed. City Harvest can declare the benefit it achieves based on such numbers.
  2. Evidence-based research indicating a causal relationship - The Parent Child Home Program conducted longitudinal research showing that children who had been through their program graduated from high school at higher rates than control groups. This demonstrated a high likelihood that other children going through the program would have their chance of graduating from high school  increased. The Parent Child Home Program can use this longitudinal research as convincing evidence of its benefits.
  3. A theory of change - When Garrison Institute brings together environmentalists, industrialists and government officials and uses meditation to help them find new solutions to environmental issues, Garrison Institute believes that this will help stem environmental degradation. Because this result is difficult to measure given the vast array of factors impacting the environment, Garrison Institute relies on its theory of change to guide its choices and verify the value of this work.
  4. A personal desire - Ethel Donaghue established the Donaghue Foundation with a vision of "continual improvement in people’s health as a result of research being converted to practical benefit." In doing so, she made a choice about where to focus her resources, based on a personal desire. Given that Ethel Donaghue passed away in 1989 leaving her foundation as a permanent legacy, at this point no proof is needed to determine if Ethel's vision is where the foundation should invest.

How Do Kids Build Character? See The Character Lab

Recently we had the opportunity to work with The Character Lab and their remarkable team: co-founders Dr. Angela Duckworth professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, and Dominic Randolph, Head of Riverdale Country School in New York City, along with Executive Director Brittany Butler. The organization's mission is to develop, disseminate, and support research-based approaches to building character that enable kids to learn and flourish. The organization's work is part of a growing trend to recognize character as one of the key factors for success in kid's learning and development. What then are the elements of character? In their Character Growth Card, The Character Lab posits that the following seven characteristics can be used to assess character in middle-school children, and help teachers provide students with formative and helpful feedback. Reading these also sparked my imagination and interest in how they apply to my own life, and to those around me.

GRIT

  • Finished whatever s/he began
  • Worked independently with focus
  • Tried very hard even after experiencing failure
  • Stayed committed to goals
  • Kept working hard even when s/he felt like quitting

OPTIMISM

  • Believed that effort would improve his/her future
  • When bad things happened, s/he thought about things s/he could do to avoid similar bad things in the future
  • Stayed motivated, even when things didn’t go well
  • Believed that s/he could improve on things they weren’t good at

SELF CONTROL (school work)

  • Came to class prepared
  • Remembered and followed directions
  • Got to work right away rather than procrastinating
  • Paid attention and resisted distractions

SELF CONTROL (interpersonal)

  • Remained calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
  • Allowed others to speak without interrupting
  • Was polite to adults and peers
  • Kept temper in check

GRATITUDE

  • Recognized what other people did for them
  • Showed appreciation for opportunities
  • Expressed appreciation by saying thank you
  • Did something nice for someone else as a way of saying thank you

SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE

  • Was able to find solutions during conflicts with others
  • Demonstrated respect for the feelings of others
  • Adapted to different social situations

CURIOSITY

  • Was eager to explore new things
  • Asked questions to deepen understanding
  • Took an active interest in learning

ZEST

  • Actively participated
  • Showed enthusiasm
  • Approached new situations with excitement and energy

The Character Lab is working to develop evidence-based research results to further test the validity and usefulness of these character designations. They also plan to aggregate a set of effective practices from other research-validated approaches.

Capital is More than Money: Four Types of Capital

Recently, during a meeting  with the Hyams Foundation I learned about Matthew Wesley's idea of four types of capital: Human, Cultural, Social and Financial. Rather than considering financial capital alone, all four types of capital should be included when charting a successful future. Matthew Wesley applies the concept to families who have remained successful across many generations. At the Hyams Foundation we found the concepts to be applicable to organizations and philanthropic institutions as well.

Financial Capital refers to the financial assets an entity has to invest in its future. Capital is different from income. High revenues can be offset by higher expenses, eroding financial capital. It is financial capital in reserves, unspent, that bolster an organization.

Human Capital is the resources that individuals and groups have, such as education, emotional resilience, physical health, and self-esteem. This capital can be built over time, and can also be eroded through poverty, natural disasters or other misfortune.

Social Capital relates to the development and maintenance of social networks, helping us to attain our goals while we help others attain theirs. The pattern of social networks has been changing dramatically in recent years with the advent of the virtual world.

Cultural Capital relates to the mindsets, the ethos carried by a group as it moves along its path. Culture is commonly conveyed through stories which demonstrate "how we do things around here." Culture can be a powerful foundation for an organization's equilibrium, and if eroded can cause the organization to falter or even fail.

In thinking about your organization, consider all the forms of capital that influence its success.  Human, social and cultural capital can be as powerful as financial capital in securing the future.

Ten Ways to Change a System

Network diagram v2
Network diagram v2

This morning, my husband and I hunkered down on the squat wooden chairs in our son’s first grade classroom and had a conference with his new teacher. From our first interactions it was clear she has a keen intelligence and a gentle bearing, and she has me reflecting on my own extraordinary teachers, from childhood to today. Inevitably, I think of Dana Meadows, a scientist, writer, and systems thinker who was a professor of mine in college and who fundamentally shaped my life path. Dana was a brilliant scientist who built computer models to generate insight into how complex systems function – and who fearlessly brought her heart as well as her brain to the undertaking. She was a pioneer in the field of system dynamics, yet she took the time to invite my whole class to her house to watch the movie Gandhi and snack on carrots from her garden.

Since blogs these days seem to be replete with top ten lists, here is one from Dana:

"Places to Intervene in a System” (in increasing order of effectiveness) 10. Constants, parameters, numbers. (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) 9. Material stocks and flows 8. Regulating negative feedback loops 7. Driving positive feedback loops. 6. Information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information). 5. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints). 4. The power of to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure. 3. The goals of the system. 2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structures, rules, delays, parameters - arise 1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

To decode much of this, you will want to her full article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. But for those among you on the hunt for magic buttons to get change fast, be forewarned. These are the final lines of the article:

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

Be rigorous, be humble, and let go strategically. These are lessons from an exceptional teacher that I expect to be learning for some time to come.

Experts, step aside

Centering II w text
Centering II w text

In the social services and healthcare fields, two experiments are underway that share a similar (and counter-intuitive) approach: Get the experts out of the way so that people can help each other. An anti-poverty organization called the Family Independence Initiative (FII) forbids its staff from offering help or advice to participating families – even when the families are making costly mistakes. Despite this, the organization's results in Oakland and San Francisco show an increase in earnings and savings of 23% and 240% respectively, with 17% of participating families buying homes and 70% of children improving their grades.

The way the Family Independence Initiative sees it, families will not stay out of poverty if they rely on a program or paid social worker for support. FII works to nurture robust social networks -- neighbors who help each other find jobs, buy homes, or with childcare. FII thinks that social workers, however well-intentioned, often get in the way and absorb resources that could go directly to poor families.

Likewise, the CenteringPregnancy model for prenatal healthcare teaches doctors and midwives to take off their white coats, sit in a circle with a group of their patients, and talk as little as possible. When the experts take a facilitative, rather than didactic approach to delivering healthcare, the women themselves share their own fears and experiences about pregnancy and childbirth with one another. They go from being passive recipients of expert advice to being active, powerful participants in the process.

It turns out, prenatal care delivered in this way simply gets better health outcomes. In a multi-site randomized control trial, CenteringPregnancy was shown to reduce the preterm birth rate among participants by 33%. That means for every two CenteringPregnancy groups, one baby is spared the trauma and risk associated with a preterm birth, and society saves an average of $52,000 in expenses.

For those of us who sometimes wonder whether we have too many experts and not enough community, these are welcome data points.

How to Increase Equity and Excellence in Public Schools

Earlier this year The Equity and Excellence Commission released its final report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  In order to decrease the achievement gap and increase equity and excellence in America’s Public Schools the Commission recommended the following:

  1. Reform the funding systems that so often mean a child’s access to education is determined by his or her ZIP code.
  2. Elevate and reform the teaching profession
  3. Ensure access to high-quality preschools
  4. Meet the non-school needs of students from high-poverty communities
  5. Shift the system of educational governance to improve equity.

All of this is critical for a nation where the average African-American eight-grader performs at the 19th percentile of white students, and the average Hispanic eighth-grader performs at the 26th percentile. And in comparison with other countries, US students rank 27th for math and just 1 in 4 American students perform on par with the average student in Singapore or Finland. I find the report's recommendations meaningful and worth revisiting. While wholesale achievement of the recommendations is unlikely in the near term, they represent a guidepost for the future.

If Kids are to Learn Character, Involve the Whole School

Classroom

A number of programs offer methods that teachers can use to bring character education (or social and emotional learning) to their classroom. The Character Lab, Open Circle, and Peace Firstall deliver programs with that intent, each in different ways.

In working with these programs and others, and in interviewing teachers they serve, we heard that character education delivered by a teacher in one classroom will dissipate if not reinforced and supported across multiple classrooms, in multiple grades, and even on the playground and in the lunchroom.

This may seem self-evident. But when schools make funding available for individual teachers to learn character-education methods for their classroom, the investment is ineffective. To have a lasting impact on positive character development, programs should be instituted across the whole school.

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Eight Models for National Expansion

If you are looking to grow your organization on a national scale, make sure to choose the approach that best suits your needs for quality control, brand recognition, and growth. In a recent study by Bikkurim and Wellspring Consulting of organizations who have achieved national expansion, we identified the following eight models. Branch. In the branch model, an organization operates in different locations (or branches) under a single legal organizational entity that is overseen by a central headquarters. While national brand recognition can be strong, with consistent control of quality across all locations, this model requires comparatively high costs and staff time at the central office. The organization's growth rate may be limited by a need to raise money for funding and management capacity at the central headquarters.

Franchise. A franchise model is similar to a branch model except that operations in different locations are separately incorporated entities. Each entity has the same name and brand, and franchisees are legally bound to use the brand and deliver programming consistently, leading to higher quality control.  In the nonprofit setting, franchisees may be organized groups of volunteers who must abide by the organization’s protocol and are often called “chapters." Growth comes from adding new franchises and depends on the appetite of the originating organization and the availability of talent to lead franchises.

Affiliate. In the affiliate model, organizations with similar missions affiliate with a central originating organization. Affiliates may have different, but related, names and brands from the originating organization and other affiliates. The originating organization supports affiliates with a proven program approach. Quality may not be as consistent across affiliates because each affiliate is its own entity. Growth occurs through enrolling new affiliates and depends on the funding and management capacity of the originating organization.

Program Codification. In the program codification model, growth occurs when an originating organization codifies a program approach and provides this codification to other organizations. Such codification ensures that a program is delivered in a way that is faithful to the originating organization’s proven approach. This may include pre-packaged program materials, directions for instructors, videos, evaluation forms, etc. These materials may be accompanied by consulting. Since organizations using a codified approach may not publicize their ties to the originating organization, program codification is unlikely to support national brand recognition. At the same time, this approach offers a relatively low-cost way to grow the use programmatic content.

Dissemination. In the dissemination model, an organization shares ideas or new methods that it has developed with others, though the ideas have yet to be codified. If an idea or method is widely adopted by others, the potential growth rate is high despite the low-cost nature of this approach. However, the user is unlikely to publicly credit the originating organization, so for the originating organization national brand recognition and the ability to control program quality are both low.

Network. The network model is similar to the dissemination model in that ideas or methods are shared without codification, but it places more emphasis on webs of relationships and an open flow of information. The network model relies on leveraging connections between users who may or may not be connected to the originating organization. Some in the chain of transmission may use the idea or program being shared while others may simply pass it along. The idea or program may also be changed by users who communicate their changes through the network. As in the dissemination model, the cost to the originating organization is low, as are brand recognition and quality control, but the growth rate is potentially high.

Merger. Mergers can achieve growth by combining organizations with similar missions. A single-city organization with a highly effective program may decide to merge with a national organization seeking to deliver that program in new places. Mergers are effective when each organization adds something from which the other organization can benefit, and when the organizations have similar missions and compatible cultures. While a merger can lead to rapid programmatic growth, programs may need to be re-branded and may lose autonomy.

Partnership. Growth via partnership occurs when two organizations see an opportunity to increase their impact by working together. Partnerships can allow the participating non-profits to gain efficiency while maintaining independent authority over their programs. The two groups may work together informally or form a legal relationship, and the partnership may be temporary or long-term. As with a merger, a partnership is most effective when each organization brings something that the other organization can benefit from, and when missions and cultures align. Since each partner maintains its own brand and quality, partnerships can be a low risk way to expand, however successful upkeep of the relationships requires time and effort.