The Pink Hats Were Awesome. Now Let's Deliver.
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Stanford Social Innovation Review
Author: Kevin Starr
February 21, 2017
We need to double down on the gritty business of impact. Here’s how.
I went to the Women’s March here in San Francisco last week. Yes, we were still in the bubble, but I loved being part of a little ripple in a sea of pink hats, and the vibe was positive, even joyous. Most of the signs were funny, there was a lot of dancing and drumming, and the whole thing reminded me how much I like living in a city where the most important holiday is Halloween.
So I did that, and I’ll join in on whatever rabble-rousing comes next and whatever organizing happens as a result. Like everybody I know, I gave dough to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a bunch of other organizations promising to make life miserable for those who would threaten our more-fragile-than-we-thought democracy. I’ll be on the lookout for more to do, and the prospects are all too good that I’ll finally get that chance to be arrested for civil disobedience.
I figure that’s the least I can do as a citizen. Those of us who get to work in the social sector can do a hell of a lot more. We really need to step up our game, though, and that means one really big thing: We have to make the social sector work like a market for impact, a system where resources flow efficiently to those best able to create lasting change. It’s not as dramatic as pink hats in the streets, but if we don’t accomplish it, we’re going to get stuck sitting up in the cheap seats while an ugly drama unfolds on stage.
To get to the kind of efficiency we need, we have two main weapons, both out of fashion in the public arena: accountability and statistics. Accountability means consequences: Those who produce results are rewarded, and those who don’t get fired. Organizations that drive real impact get the money they need to grow, and those that don’t go out of business. The way we get to accountability is via statistics: In the end, everything must be validated and developed on the basis of numbers. While it’s true that “not everything that counts can be measured,” all that non-measurable stuff better lead to something that can. Nobody gets a pass.
The social sector is mostly composed of funders and doers. If we’re to step it up, if we’re to really fight, here’s what each has to do:
If you’re not funding for impact, you’re impeding the emergence of market efficiencies, and there’s a good chance that your funding is worse than nothing. To fund for impact means that you:
- Commit to impact. You make a commitment to put impact first in your funding calculus and hold yourself accountable to it.
- Learn what that means. You do what it takes to get a working understanding of what impact is and how to measure it.
- Fund for impact. You actually put in place mechanisms and a methodology to ensure that impact drives your decisions.
This isn’t easy, and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Even gold-standard randomized controlled trials don’t always get it right, and real-world funding for maximum impact is a constant process of iteration toward an impossible goal. You have to do your best, though, and if you’re early in the game or don’t have the bandwidth for the work, find someone who does a good job of it and steal from their portfolio.
Once you do learn how to look for impact, fund well. Good funding comes with minimal hassle, and good due diligence should be mostly composed of documents grantees already have. Don’t ask for stuff in your particular picky format—that’s a waste of everyone’s time. Fund fast or at least on a predictable schedule. And unless you have a good reason not to, give unrestricted funding and keep funding the same organizations as long as you’re seeing the progress you need.
Stop worrying about whether “your” money will make a difference. Money is fungible. Give your money to the best organizations you can find, and stop worrying about whether you get credit or whether you were somehow “catalytic.” Most of that is just feeding your ego. As long you think there’s a solid idea and a high-performing team, make it unrestricted money—we want them to be able to be creative and to change course when the path to maximum impact shifts or becomes clearer.
Spend more. The five percent distribution rule is a minimum, not a maximum. Don’t spend more than you can spend well, but once you can, step it up. (A word to donor-advised funds and community foundations: Get that money moving.) Look hard at what you spend on your own operations. If the money you’re spending provides real value, then don’t worry about it, but we all know foundations can be flabby and that usually translates into more work for the doers since all those unnecessary people have to justify their existence.
And then: Be accountable—institutionally and individually. I live for the day that a foundation chief executive (in a position like mine) gets fired—explicitly—for lack of impact. Funders have coasted for way too long, shifting the blame for any lack of progress to the doers. No. We drive the market—if it’s not working, it’s our fault. Everything—good or bad—flows from how funders make their decisions. Dumb funding is worse than nothing. Really.
You’ve gotta commit to impact too. That means that you get absolutely clear on what you’re setting out to accomplish, identify the outcome(s) that would signify impact, connect the dots from your work to all the way to impact, and strip away all the stuff that doesn’t get you there. You measure what’s critical to delivery, behavior change, and eventual impact, and you continually iterate based on what you measure. You put in place systems that make you better able to collect and act on the right information. You understand and calculate the cost of the impact you create, and you continually refine toward more efficiency, better design, and lower cost.
To deliver all that, you need to master the art of management. Put systems in place so that you can identify your high performers and advance them. Pay them well, commensurate with their contribution to impact (funders, please note). Create a healthy place to work that brings out the best in people, but don’t hang on to those who can’t or won’t perform. The people and causes we serve deserve the best; nobody has an intrinsic right to employment in an NGO.
I suspect there will be a lot more advocacy work going on in the days ahead. Awesome. To those doing that work: Make yourself accountable. Figure out exactly who is supposed to do what differently as a result of your advocacy, and keep track of whether they do. Put it in a scorecard so you can see your win/loss record. If you’re winning all the time, you’re probably cherry-picking the easy ones; if you’re forever losing, then you need to fix your approach. Fighting the good fight isn’t good enough anymore. We need to win.
So this is how we fight: We create a machine that relentlessly churns out change for the better. None of this is easy, but shuffling along in that sea of pink hats, I felt energized and emboldened by what is possible if we do this right. Let’s go.