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Why We Need to Nurture Entrepreneurship in Young Girls

By Sylvia Acevedo

Last month, women on college campuses around the world gathered for Women Entrepreneurship Week, an annual event that brings budding female entrepreneurs together with female startup founders through workshops and panel discussions. Last year, it attracted participants from 76 universities in 15 countries. Programs like these promote and support women’s entrepreneurship—and we need more of them to address the inequality that currently exists—but they don’t reach women early enough.

To affect real change, we need to begin to nurture entrepreneurship in girls when they are in elementary school. We must teach them not only the financial and other skills they will need to succeed, but also to see themselves as entrepreneurs and leaders through hands-on experience and interactions with female role models.

According to the American Express 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, in January 2017, women owned an estimated 11.6 million businesses in the United States, employing nearly 9 million people and generating more than $1.7 trillion in revenues. On the surface, those numbers look encouraging, but they tell only half the story. As of 2017, women owned 39 percent of all privately held US firms, but those businesses contributed only 8 percent of total employment and 4.2 percent of revenues. For women, owning a business often means simply working for herself. Bringing employment and revenue in line with the number of women-owned firms would contribute to women’s individual economic independence, create jobs, and grow the economy.

The Female Entrepreneur Gap

Part of the challenge in closing the gap is that women struggle to raise capital. In 2016, women received $1.46 billion in venture capital, representing only 2 percent of total venture funding. The 2017 Harvard Business School working paper, “Diversity in Innovation,” offers one explanation: homophily, meaning that people tend to live and network in homogenous bubbles. So venture capitalists tend to mentor and give money to entrepreneurs who look like them, and since the majority of entrepreneurs are white men, they receive the bulk of the resources—both human and monetary. Homophily also impacts career choices; if girls don’t know or interact with female entrepreneurs, they are less likely to see themselves as one.

This idea was substantiated by the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Women’s Report, which found that women’s confidence was lower in countries with more developed economies Fewer than 35 percent of women in these economies believe they have the capabilities to start a business based on the opportunities they see. Conversely, more than 67 percent of women in less-developed economies believe the same thing. The authors of the study acknowledged that businesses in developed economies are more complex, but also noted that only 27 percent of American women say they know an entrepreneur personally.

It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way to break it is to get more women, including women of color and diverse heritages, into the entrepreneurial pipeline. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship programs for women on college campuses. While these efforts are important in working to close the gender gap, the programs may not reach the young women who enter college without an overt interest in entrepreneurship. This matters, because the skills and characteristics that make a good entrepreneur—fortitude, financial literacy, and the ability to set and meet goals, and even take some calculated risks—will serve women well regardless of their chosen field. Moreover, college programs will never reach girls who are not encouraged to pursue higher education. I know this because I was one of those girls.

Building Entrepreneurial Skills

Growing up in New Mexico, no one around me went to college, and I certainly didn’t see female entrepreneurs. My own business education began when I joined Girl Scouts and started selling cookies, and my troop leader told me that I couldn’t leave the site of a sale until I heard no three times. That’s an incredibly empowering message for a young girl, and I applied that rule to all aspects of my life. I often think about all the times I heard no as a girl, and what path I might have taken had I not persevered.

Beyond learning not to take no for an answer and other soft skills—self-confidence, determination, and grit—the program taught me the hard skills fundamental to entrepreneurship, and it was the only financial education I received as a young girl.

Since that time, the Cookie Program has expanded to include an emphasis on teaching five essential entrepreneurial skills: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. In 2014, we launched Digital Cookie, a platform that allows girls to create their own personalized cookie site. It offers games and quizzes centered on entrepreneurial skills, as well as a place for girls to set their cookie goals, track their progress, manage orders and inventory, learn Internet safety skills, and, of course, sell cookies. Additionally, cookie sellers can now earn badges in creating business plans, customer service, and marketing. They can also earn financial literacy badges in areas such as budgeting, philanthropy, making smart buying decisions, and financial planning. The Cookie Program and financial literacy badges are part of a larger Financial Empowerment Program, which has age-appropriate lessons and activities centered around financial literacy for girls in grades K through 12.

Getting Financial Literacy into Schools

The need for early financial literacy training cannot be overstated. Girls rarely see money being transacted these days, let alone have decision-making power about how it is spent. A report from the Federal Reserve found that the credit scores of students who received personal finance education were 7 to 29 points higher than those of students who weren’t exposed to the same lessons. Three years after exposure, study subjects had larger increases in credit scores and lower rates of delinquency.

Unfortunately, currently only 17 states require high school students to study personal finance, and less than half require them to take an economics course. This gap in financial education in our schools puts all students, but particularly girls, at a disadvantage, and makes entrepreneurship programs aimed at young girls even more vital.

Entrepreneurial Environments That Work for Girls

A number of organizations offer entrepreneurship programs or teaching materials for children and teens. Junior Achievement’s Be Entrepreneurial program and VentureLab each have downloadable curriculums available to educators, for example, and Young Entrepreneurs Academy runs a year-long, after-school program in 168 American communities. But again, while initiatives like these are important and need support, only VentureLab has lessons for students below grade 6, and none of these programs is specifically designed for girls or operates in a single-sex environment.

Research tells us that girls perform better in girl-only environments, so it is imperative that we support smaller organizations and help them develop more entrepreneurship opportunities for young girls. Business leaders can do their part by volunteering with existing girls’ programs or by launching mentoring programs for young girls at their companies. Parents can include their daughters in family decision-making around money, and we can all talk to the girls in our lives about the importance of financial literacy and financial empowerment.

The young girls of today are preparing for careers in industries that have not yet been invented. We need them to have the courage and the confidence—along with the business acumen and technology skills—to create the solutions that are remaking our world. But that’s just one part of the equation; they also need to know how to sell that solution so that it gets adopted.

Girls need to learn both the hard entrepreneurial skills and those softer leadership skills when they are young so that they can practice them through adolescence and into adulthood. We need to teach them early on that when it comes to their dreams and vision, they should never take no for an answer.

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Wielding Power with Community: Creating Pathways for Change and Transformation

By Linda S. Campbell

For more than 30 years, I have worked with vulnerable communities in the United States, including low-income mothers with children, Black men with HIV/AIDS, and people experiencing hunger in a gentrifying city hailed as a “hot food destination.” I have learned that the fundamental challenge they face is not lack of compassion from society’s elites—though compassion helps—but lack of community power.

I first realized this when I started my career as a public health worker in Detroit. As I knocked on doors and listened to what people told me they wanted and needed, I found that even those in the direst circumstances will craft real solutions that benefit them, their families, and their communities if they have the time, information, and decision-making authority they need to do it.

Yet many communities don’t have the power to act on solutions of their own design. Public officials, grantmakers, and others in power may tap constituents for their “input” at a neighborhood charrette or community meeting, but they often ultimately ignore community ideas and insights. As a result, many communities have plenty of experience with people in power telling them what is really good for them, rather than being able to speak for themselves and act on their own behalf.

Earlier in this series, grantmakers Alison Corwin and Luz Vega-Marquis offered advice on how funders can shift their power to residents and communities. My years of experience working in the extreme and somewhat unusual circumstances of social change in Detroit offer a unique opportunity to reflect on what shifting power means from a community perspective.

Rebuilding community power

After a decade’s absence from Detroit, I returned in 1998 to find an even greater power imbalance than when I left. I knew there had been years of economic disinvestment from the city, accompanied by white flight, but I was not prepared for the level of disdain the state legislature directed at Detroit. The legislature had grown to regard the state’s largest city as a “drain” on its coffers, particularly when it came to investments like school aid and social welfare benefits. I was also shocked by the emerging narrative that Detroiters had lost their capacity to demonstrate voice and power in charting the future of their city. Local powerbrokers across government, philanthropy, and the business community generally accepted this narrative, in spite of the successful efforts of community members to support and maintain important civic, cultural, and local business infrastructure with little or no external investment.

Since then, Detroiters have contended with the largest municipal bankruptcy in the United States, the suspension of elected officials’ power under the rule of emergency management, and the 2007 recession, which hit Detroit harder than most places. Detroiters were under siege and losing power by the day.

My work with neighborhood groups, soup kitchens, food pantries, and social service agencies reminded me of the untapped power of city residents. It informed those of us at the Building Movement Project, which supports nonprofit capacity to build social movements, to join a group of long-time residents and activists in forming the Detroit People’s Platform (DPP) in 2013. DPP is a physical space where Detroiters convene across class lines and neighborhoods. Here, they talk face to face about their rich history as America’s largest majority Black city, identify shared challenges, and organize to create solutions. As such, DPP harnesses the enduring commitment by many Detroiters—particularly long-time African American residents—to reinvigorate democracy by embracing Detroit’s history of movement-building and social justice through collective action today. It offers a way to redefine the role of community in the revitalization of the city. While the state government wields its power, we invest in ours.

Securing community solutions

Residents of Detroit talk about a “tale of two cities”—one where young white professionals find enclaves of housing, good jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, and like-minded colleagues, and another where long-time residents, people of color, seniors, and families living in poverty face the loss of affordable housing, failing schools, water shut-offs, and overall disinvestment from their neighborhoods. Through DPP, residents left out of the revitalization are developing strategies and solutions rooted in principles of racial equity, solidarity, inclusion, and democratic practices. Even against formidable opponents who have far more resources and recognition, they are building power, shaping their own agenda, and calling for more equitable economic development that benefits community—rather than more public investment in private development.

As one example, developers have promised community benefits but consistently failed to deliver, as when Marathon Oil refinery received $175 million tax abatement from the city for its expansion in 2007, vowing it would create jobs for Detroiters. By 2014, it reported having only 30 Detroit residents among its 514 employees. DPP and residents have stepped up to face challenges like these in a number of ways:

  • In 2016, Detroiters went to the polls and passed the first-ever community benefits agreement ordinance in the United States. This mandates that large-scale, publicly subsidized development projects engage with local residents to discuss community concerns and potential benefits. Although limited in scope, the ordinance sets the stage for residents to continue to organize for inclusion in an economic revival that has left many on the sidelines.
  • In the face of continued mass water shutoffs, considered by the United Nations a human rights violation, Detroiters are advocating for an income-based, water affordability plan with local government.
  • In September 2017, following a two-year effort, residents and advocates successfully pushed the city council to establish a Housing Trust Fund to address affordability among low-income residents.

Despite this commitment, many philanthropies that invest in Detroit seem reluctant to build power with community or even wield their power on behalf of community. Rather than engage directly with residents, or get behind and invest in community-led solutions, most foundation staff spend their time at the tables of traditional power with developers and public officials—typically white, elite, and male leadership, who perpetuate the status quo..

As a result, the vision and values that emerge among those in power often lead to winners-and-losers-type situations that increase the threat of gentrification and displacement. This is apparent in strategies that, for example, invest in only select neighborhoods to combat Detroit’s massive population loss and lack of funding for urban infrastructure. By contrast, those who advocate for resident-led community planning embrace the unifying vision that all neighborhoods deserve a future.

Combining grantmaker power with community power

So what gets in the way of foundations investing in strategies to achieve transformational outcomes rooted in community power building?

Frances Kunreuther, co-director of Building Movement Project, recently remarked that change requires both a “push” and a “pathway.” In terms of a push, she says, “Communities need to push funders and others in power to think about the unintended consequences their solutions—often devised without community input—can have on their lives.” The “expert solutions” funders often champion are rooted in race and class bias; they reflect the ingroup norms where the white, elite “experts” derive power from their knowledge. National programs such as Welfare to Work and the War on Drugs were both expert-driven policy solutions that had negative outcomes for Detroit families and other communities of color—leaving them further impoverished due to the erosion of income support, as well as more likely to be incarcerated than given treatment for substance use.

Philanthropy must learn to wield its power by aligning with community concerns and calling for clear commitments to racial and economic justice from elected officials, funders, and investors. Policymakers and those who fund their initiatives must consider community-led alternatives that are grounded in the reality and wisdom of people who live through the challenges of disinvestment, inequities, and injustice every day.

In terms of a pathway, philanthropy needs to find ways to support resident solutions. Specifically, it needs to:

  • Acknowledge, articulate, and amplify the values that community members and philanthropy hold in common.
  • Invest the time and resources for community members to craft viable solutions, and trust in their ability to do so.
  • Be willing to take risks and support new and nontraditional leadership who can drive change.

When residents come together and do the hard work of identifying the source of problems they face and offering solutions, they are giving a gift to funders. And when grantmakers recognize this gift, they can align their priorities around solutions that show measurable results. Building, sharing, and wielding power with those most affected by problems is not only rewarding, but also a sure way to confirm that every-day people can drive a vibrant democracy that works for all.

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An Operating Model to Make Social Innovation Stick

By Ann Mei Chang

Innovation is as essential to social purpose as it is to business profits. But too many organizations embrace the latest fad—whether it be a contest, crowdsourcing tool, or technology platform—while their long-standing operating norms remain unchanged. Not surprisingly, the disruptive potential of these approaches drives an initial surge of excitement, followed by people gradually drifting back into business as usual. I’ve seen this story play out year after year at nonprofits, social enterprises, B Corporations, institutional donors, philanthropists, and impact investors. But, it doesn’t have to.

The field of social innovation has undergone a quantum leap in sophistication with the relatively recent adoption of modern innovation tools such as human-centered design, behavioral science, scaling innovation, lean experimentation, and lean data. However, the resulting whole has often been less than the sum of its parts. Many practitioners are still unclear how this growing jumble of techniques fits together or with existing systems. Worse, piecemeal adoption can fill in a few missing gaps, while simultaneously ignoring other elements equally essential to success. Sometimes it feels a bit like a game of whack-a-mole.

Over the past year as part of the research for my new book, Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, I interviewed leaders of more than 200 mission-driven organizations across a wide spectrum of geographies, sectors, structures, sizes, and roles to learn what factors had led to outsized results and what factors had led to stagnation or sometimes even failure. What I found was that while each organization had employed its own unique mix of methodologies, the most successful shared an integrated approach to innovation that was built into its DNA.

Without the right direction, incentives, and success criteria, the most sophisticated tools can only go so far. Promising ideas are birthed, only to hit a wall later due to other priorities, lack of funding, or fundamental flaws in design. Innovation can’t simply be bolted onto traditional systems and structures. Instead, it must be built into the very foundation of an organization.

What we need is a radical overhaul of the underlying operating model for our institutions that includes three basic elements: audacious goals, organizational agility, and markers of progress. While they may sound simple, each is crucial and frequently neglected.

  1. Goal. A measurable, audacious goal based on what is required for lasting change, rather than what is incrementally possible within existing constraints. What does success look like?
  2. Agility. The systems, muscles, and culture to quickly learn and adapt in search of the best solution. How can we accelerate our learning?
  3. Markers. Meaningful measures of performance along with clear success criteria. Are we reducing risk and maximizing value, growth, and impact?

These three building blocks combine to form the foundation upon which social innovation can thrive. They help inject a new mindset that in turn drives priorities and decision-making. To achieve substantial impact, innovation cannot be relegated to the early discovery stage, but rather must become an integral part of an organization’s work throughout the full lifecycle of development and deployment. Providers and funders alike must work in concert to establish a new framework for accountability.

Today, the dominant model of engagement—firmly entrenched in both organizational cultures and grant structures—involves extensive upfront planning followed by faithful implementation. This is a system optimized to deliver predictable results. It is well suited for problems that are understood and solved, where the key challenge lies in effective execution. Think utility company.

In contrast, most of the social sector engages at points of market and government failure, faces high degrees of uncertainty, and grapples with interventions that are far from sufficient. We need better solutions that will reach farther and go deeper. This calls for adaptability, not predictability. As a gross understatement, our current operating model is not fit for purpose.

To provide a framework for organizational change, let’s explore each of the three elements in depth:

1. Goal: Establish an Audacious Goal

Discussion of innovation inevitably turns to the appetite for risk and the tolerance for failure. Equally important is the role of aspiration and the drive for success that comes from having a clear and audacious goal. Among the greatest examples was US President John Kennedy’s simple and compelling 1961 call to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade that energized a nation. On the other hand, mission-driven organizations tend to adopt goals that are vague, incremental, or both. In the absence of a tangible target that requires us to stretch, risk aversion and inertia quickly set in. People need a reason to take risks. If they can even come close to the target with business as usual, why take the chance to delve into the unknown?

When I was executive director of the Global Development Lab at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), I discovered that the goal of our innovation programs—including Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) and our family of Grand Challenges for Development—had been loosely defined as “identify breakthrough innovations.” The lack of specificity had the presumed upside of making it unlikely we’d ever be perceived as failing. But it provided little guidance on whether what we were doing was working.

With a bit of a push and a lot of soul searching, the team at the lab agreed on a more concrete goal: to identify ten breakthrough innovations in five years that each improved the lives of at least one million people, demonstrated evidence of substantial impact, and had a financially sustainable path forward. The implications were apparent. While the lab had sourced many promising early stage innovations, few had yet successfully scaled. It became clear that we needed to double down on the most promising innovations in our portfolio and help them to reach the next stages of growth.

A goal is the quantifiable grand vision of the change you seek to make in the world, ideally shaped by the size and scope of the need that exists. If a problem plagues tens or hundreds of millions of people, reaching a few thousand will barely make a dent. To put things in perspective, ask yourself, Are you trying to empty the ocean with a spoon or a bathtub with a bucket?

Unfortunately, social and environmental interventions are often planned within tight constraints—of existing budget, limited staff, or the time horizon and dollar amount of a grant. This leads to modest, incremental progress at best. What if, instead, we determined the size of the need, searched for a viable solution, and then found a way to bring together the resources that would be required?

Too often, we embark on the innovation journey without a concrete grasp of our destination. Whether you are using human-centered design, behavioral science, lean experimentation, or some other approach, knowing how far you’ll need to stretch to move the needle will shape the questions you ask and the options you explore. Here’s what this might look like:

Recognize the Need | Four years ago Ben Mangan, the co-founder and former CEO of EARN, wrote about his realization that EARN’s “impact was out of whack with the size of the American economic security problem.” Although EARN’s 7,000 goal-based savings accounts placed it near the top of the micro-savings sector, it was barely making a dent in the 50 to 70 million Americans that could stand to benefit. At an awards dinner in 2012, Mangan stunned the audience by announcing an audacious goal to help one million people save a total of $1 billion by 2022. The clarity of his vision made the need for a lighter weight self-service model obvious. Since this pivot, EARN was able to serve 85,000 new users in the first year of its new SaverLife technology platform, more than ten times as many as during its first 15 years combined.

Have a North Star | Early on, MyAgro established a target “to increase the income of a million smallholder farmers by $1.50 per day by 2025.” This North Star drives the team to continually seek ways to simplify their model and cut costs, as it’s clear that financial sustainability will be the only way they can possibly reach this degree of scale. MyAgro’s research and development team constantly tests new ideas, typically starting with three stores and 30 farmers. These experiments have helped them identify numerous improvements to their model such as halving the recommended dose of fertilizer because it saved farmers money while having no discernible impact on yields, encouraging farmers to develop good saving habits because it increased how much farmers put away, and partnering with existing savings groups to lower MyAgro’s operating costs.

Set the Bar | Donors and government funders play an important role in determining the benchmarks for success. For example, after recognizing that their public school system was failing, the Ministry of Education launched the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) to identify operators who could deliver superior academic results within the constraints of the government budget. In the first year, contracts were awarded to eight nonprofit and for-profit entities for a total of 93 public schools. A rigorous third-party evaluation found that, on average, PSL students learned 60 percent more than students in government schools. If results endure and costs decline with economies of scale, the program has the potential to be expanded nationally.

2. Agility: Accelerate Your Learning

With an audacious goal in hand, many organizations then attempt to create a well-honed strategy that can be followed to achieve the goal. But, as the military has well understood, no battle plan ever survives first contact. Rather than assembling the foremost experts and attempting to come up with the perfect plan, the ability to quickly learn and adapt is far more likely to lead to an effective solution. This means finding ways to iterate on a solution in the space of days or weeks, not months or years.

As perhaps the planet’s most prominent hotbed of innovation, Silicon Valley gave birth to the lean startup model, which stresses the importance of accelerating the pace of learning through build-measure-learn feedback loops. To do so, it introduced tools for rapid experimentation using techniques such as minimum viable products, A/B tests, actionable metrics, and innovation accounting. By applying the rigor of the scientific method to systematically validate the riskiest assumptions behind a product or service, you can detect problems early, quickly explore potential enhancements, and eliminate wasted effort.

In contrast, the traditional model for learning in the social sector can resemble that of the now largely defunct encyclopedia. A program is evaluated, a randomized control trial (RCT) run or a research report is compiled—then put on the shelf in hopes someone will make good use of it later. If the intent of learning is to drive innovation and impact, then any data, information, or research collected should be:

  • Actionable. Only take the time and energy to gather data where a concrete action or decision will be taken based on the result.
  • Meaningful. Focus on improvements in performance rather than the scope of activity. Consider, for example, the adoption rate, unit costs, or degree of behavior change versus the number of people reached or dollars raised.
  • Fast. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If obtaining a comprehensive evaluation will be a lengthy process, look for early indicators of progress.

Real-Time Feedback | The American Refugee Committee (ARC) in collaboration with IDEO.org created a real-time feedback system, Kuja Kuja, that has been deployed in refugee camps in across Africa to track customer satisfaction with water distribution, health care and other services. Refugees employed by ARC stand at service locations with mobile enabled tablets and ask two simple questions—are you satisfied with the service and do you have an idea to make us better. The system has enabled ARC to quickly uncover issues ranging from inconveniently placed water taps to water access points being coopted by local thugs, and take immediate action.

Results that Matter | Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator is committed to tackling the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa by matching disadvantaged youth who have never held a formal job with employers seeking qualified talent. While many workforce development organizations are satisfied with celebrating the number of people trained or placed, Harambee takes things a step further. What matters to both workers and employers is success and retention in jobs over time. Thus, Harambee follows up with their job seekers via text messages every four months for two years to keep tabs on critical outcomes such as retention rates and promotions. When it became clear that high transport costs were a major factor in attrition, Harambee increased their emphasis on proximity when making candidate placements.

Trust and Reward | Funders can support and encourage agility by moving away from detailed plans that are tracked through cumbersome reporting to agreements on clear goals along with incentives for progress. The Global Innovation Fund and USAID’s DIV both employ a tiered funding model, adapted from the world of venture capital. Small, early stage grants allow for risk-taking, while minimizing financial downside. And, rather than micromanaging activities, demonstrated traction is rewarded through larger, follow-on rounds of funding. Such funding structures relieve both parties from the unproductive, and sometimes adversarial, tedium of compliance and allow for flexibility, risk-taking, and pivots.

3. Markers: Assess Your Value, Growth, and Impact

If your goal is the destination, and your agility enables you to accelerate, break, and steer, what remains are your markers of progress—the directions, signposts, and landmarks that will help you navigate your way there. For successful social innovation, we need to pay attention to and optimize across three dimensions: value, growth, and impact. While the ever-expanding array of innovation tools tend to be based on the same underlying best practices, they each tend to emphasize some a subset of the three.

When we go too far in optimizing for the requirements of any one dimension before addressing the others, we can commit to and over-invest in a design that will eventually fall short. The long trail of failed social innovations that litter the landscape inevitably fell prey to neglecting at least one of these three dimensions. Some emphasized human-centered design and were highly responsive to customer needs, but became too expensive or complex to scale. Others prioritized business models to drive growth, but sacrificed more meaningful impact. Still others focused on rigorous evaluation of impact, but left the intended beneficiaries unenthusiastic.

Because modifications to improve one dimension may cause ripple effects that influence the dynamics for the others, it’s important to focus attention on the riskiest assumptions and promising opportunities across value, growth, and impact from the start. As we begin to eliminate the greatest points of uncertainty, we can gain the confidence to make more substantial investments and expand our audience.

Value | If people wholeheartedly want, embrace, and demand what we have to offer, we are far more likely to make a difference. Thankfully, we have come a long way since the days where well-meaning interventions would frequently be foisted on target populations without their input or buy-in. The growing popularity of human-centered design means that most organizations now engage their beneficiaries to some extent in the design of products and services. These efforts should be encouraged, sped up, aligned towards clearly defined success criteria, and sustained over the full lifecycle.

When organizations don’t consider the perceived value by beneficiaries the results can be disappointing. Take, for example, the case of the clinical trials for Tenofovir, a vaginal gel to prevent HIV transmission. Though the substance was determined to be safe and effective in a highly controlled environment, a multi-million dollar phase-three clinical trial in South Africa showed no statistically significant difference between the placebo group and the treatment group. The reason? Women didn’t use the gel consistently, both before and after every sexual encounter, because they found it impractical in their cultural context. Earlier attention to the client experience could have led to a redesign or at least a less expensive lesson.

In contrast, when Off Grid Electric in Tanzania first considered selling home solar systems using a mobile money-based lease-to-own business model, it wasn’t sure whether customers would be willing to pay small amounts for electricity on an ongoing basis. So, its first small pilot consisted of a Maasai tribesman walking from village to village to collect money in person each week. While this was certainly not a scalable model, Off Grid was able to validate user acceptance before making the bigger investment required to build and manufacture an automated system for collecting payments and metering service.

The Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen for Good initiative seeks to build high-quality feedback loops between nonprofits and their clients. Their small grants and technical assistance help client-facing nonprofits implement a five-question survey based on the Net Promoter System to ensure the perspective of their customers is heard on an ongoing basis. Through their Listen for Good surveys, Nurse-Family Partnership, a nonprofit that supports first-time mothers, heard that their clients wanted more flexibility in scheduling appointments. As a result, they fast-tracked a tele-health pilot as a backup option when busy schedules or weather prevented in-person home visits.

Growth | We need to stop thinking about scale as an absolute number to be attained, but rather the slope of the curve, or acceleration, of growth over time. In the former case, the easy temptation is to seek out donor funds that will drive the next quantum of expansion through brute force, only to see growth stagnate as the limits of philanthropic dollars are exhausted. In the latter case, we instead seek out sustainable models that will continue to drive adoption, build momentum, and eventually lead to the exponential growth required to reach a substantial portion of the need. This typically requires some form of business model, adoption by governments, replication through multiple entities, or policy change.

For all the talk of scaling social innovations, scale still tends to be an afterthought—something to consider after a solution has been successfully piloted. Yet, unleashing an engine for growth can have significant implications that affect the core design of an intervention. If it is market-driven, price sensitivity may require a pared down product or service. If it is through replication, an intervention may need to be simplified to ensure it can be deployed with high fidelity at arms-length. And, if it is government-funded, political, budget, or infrastructure realities may constrain the acceptable footprint. By taking your endgame into account from the start, the engine for growth can be built into the core of a design rather than retrofitted after the fact.

A shocking reminder of the social sector’s tendency to pilot new solutions without sufficient consideration of the long-term implications was the moratorium on mobile health pilots declared by the government of Uganda in 2012. This country had been inundated by dozens upon dozens of organizations implementing programs that were duplicative, lacked a viable path to scale, and didn’t interoperate with either the government health care system or each other. Supporting these scatter-shot efforts became a burden rather than a benefit to the health ministry. And, it wasn’t just Uganda. In 2013, a World Bank study uncovered almost 500 disparate mobile health programs around the world.

An example of a health initiative that created a sustainable and scalable model is Aravind Eye Hospitals, which was founded in 1976 with a mission to “eliminate needless blindness.” At the time, an estimated 10 million people were blind in India, the vast majority of them from cataracts that could be cured through surgery. After failing in its attempts to raise sufficient philanthropic dollars to build a hospital and provide free care, Aravind decided to cross-subsidize their services for those who couldn’t pay with the earned income from those who could. This model motivated Aravind to dramatically reduce costs and improve efficiency. All patients receive the same high-quality care from the same doctors, with the main difference being the quality of accommodations. Today, Aravind has become the largest provider of eye care services in the world, performing an estimated 300,000 cataract eye surgeries in 2017, two-thirds of which were either free or highly subsidized.

Given the limitations of charitable funding, donors hold a part of the responsibility for transitioning grantees onto a sustainable path for growth. For those with earned income business models, blended finance—a complementary mix of philanthropic and investment capital—can provide the necessary bridge out of donor dependence. While many social enterprises are already financed through custom funding stacks that include grants, debt, and equity, more systemic mechanisms are needed to facilitate broader adoption. One promising initiative is Convergence, established in 2016 as a global network for blended finance that both designs and brokers deals. Convergence believes that by leveraging public and philanthropic funding, as much as ten times more private investment dollars can be unlocked.

Impact | The ultimate goal of social innovation is to deliver social impact that persists, to the maximum degree possible. Yet, measuring impact is generally far tougher and far slower than measuring something like e-commerce purchases. As a result, on one extreme some practitioners forgo rigorous measurement and focus instead on counting the numbers of people reached, while on the opposite extreme others slow down their feedback cycle to incorporate time-consuming and expensive RCTs. Fortunately, alternatives exist. Acumen’s Lean Data initiative and IDinsight have been among the leaders who are filling the need for timely, actionable impact data.

Beyond the question of pure impact, we must also consider cost-effectiveness. It’s not enough to make a difference. We should also consider the value for money relative to the alternatives. For example, I once heard of a program that had raised the incomes of poor farmers by a total of $1 million. Not bad? It seemed far less impressive when I learned that $10 million had been spent in doing so.

When impact isn’t understood, a compelling intervention may cause attention and resources to be diverted from more effective solutions. The widespread replication of microcredit as a financially sustainable way to lift millions out of poverty is one well-documented example. By 2007, the global microcredit industry grew to almost 25,000 institutions serving more than 100 million borrowers⁠. Yet, more than three decades after the birth of the modern movement in Bangladesh during the 1980s, a number of RCTs reported a “lack of evidence of transformative effects on the average borrower.” Even worse, some poor households became mired in debt, unable to keep up with high interest payments.

One area where impact can take a notoriously long time to materialize is education. Summit Public Schools’ goal of having 100 percent of its participants attend and graduate from college can’t be fully confirmed for a decade. Yet, it recognized the need for a faster feedback cycle. Thus, Summit focused on embedding a culture and process for iterative learning using a technology platform, mentor meetings, and teacher feedback to garner immediate insight into student progress. With this data, it was able to run rapid-cycle prototypes, on a weekly basis, to shape its transformative approach to personalized learning. Modifications ranged from small tweaks in curriculum to a complete reconfiguration of the school day. The Summit Public School model has now been adopted in more than 300 public schools across the United States.

To align the interests of funders and providers around creating the most cost-effective impact, the ideal scenario would be to pay for outcomes. However, this can be impractical, given the cost, time, and difficulty involved in discretely measuring many desirable outcomes—as evidenced by the still limited number of social impact bonds. Yet, smaller steps can play dividends. In their work with King County, Washington to improve timely access to outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment, Third Sector Capital Partners established performance benchmarks, then amended the existing provider contracts to offer a 2 percent bonus for meeting targets. In addition, by 2020, a greater portion of payments will be linked to outcomes, raising the bar on what it will take to stay competitive.

Fall in Love with the Problem, Not Your Solution

If you are true to your goal, remain agile, and stay focused on meaningful markers of progress, you may find yourself facing some tough choices. The solution you initially envisioned may simply not work, or be the best option. That disruptive technology you’ve committed to deploying might not be appropriate. The opportunity to raise more money, gain more glory, or expand the footprint of your organization may not exist. Are you prepared to do what it takes to solve the problem? All the theory on innovation is only as good as the willingness to act on it.

Most people don’t realize that one of the most successful social enterprises, d.light, didn’t start out selling solar lanterns. While it has been unwavering in its goal to provide the 1.6 billion people who live without electricity access to affordable light, its first design, the Forever-Bright, was a low-cost LED light run off batteries that could be recharged by a diesel generator. This worked well in its initial markets of Myanmar and Cambodia, where children would shuttle lead acid batteries every few days to generators to be recharged. But as d.light expanded into India it discovered that generators weren’t as readily available. This caused it to pivot to a new approach—solar—and it never looked back. D.light has now sold close to 20 million solar light and power products in 62 countries.

When we hear the word innovation, we inevitably imagine the process of birthing a breakthrough idea no one has thought of before. This is based on a widely held misconception of the term. New ideas are a dime a dozen. In fact, most of the good ideas we need probably already exist. The tough part is refining and deploying an invention to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Evidence Action, has taken this to heart and works to build scalable programs based on research studies that have already demonstrated successful results. One such endeavor is their Deworm the World Initiative that aims to reach the more than 800 million children who are at risk of parasitic worm infections that can negatively impact their health, ability to learn, and future productivity. Building on existing data, Evidence Action works with policymakers to design and implement effective deworming programs at a state and national level. Through their support of India’s National Deworming Day alone, the program treated approximately 260 million children in 2017.

It’s time to shift our attention from the adoption of new innovation methods to the institutionalization of an operating model where innovation can thrive. This requires audacious goals that will force us out of our comfort zones, an emphasis on agility over planning, and a laser focus on the markers that indicate strong performance. With these foundational elements in place, the growing choice of tools, techniques, and experts will become ever more powerful and essential. Without them, our efforts will be stymied as we find ourselves continually swimming upstream.

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How—and—Why to Listen Until Someone Feels Heard

By Dr. Adrienne Boissy

Interrupting is a powerful urge. We want to quickly find out what we need to know and are eager to steer conversations in that direction. While this isn’t necessarily bad, most of us want people to listen to us when the tables turn. When that doesn’t happen, human nature leads us to stop talking altogether or to crank up the volume.

As a neurologist and chief experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, one of the most powerful things you can do for people is to ask about insights and feelings, reflect what you hear back to them, and then do something about it. This not only makes an impact in one-on-one conversations, but can also improve program and process design. I call this concept “empathy operationalized.” Although I view this issue through a healthcare lens, the reflections are universal. Ultimately, soliciting and applying someone’s feedback is fundamental to making that person feel seen and valued.

Training for empathy

Many people who choose careers in medicine or at nonprofits are intrinsically motivated to serve others. And yet most of us haven’t received any training to hone our ability to empathize; we just do our best. If we expect every healthcare professional to empathize with every patient, we must provide training. Working in hospitals is tremendously stressful: Doctors-in-training have to learn to work on a team, document their actions extensively, take on sleep-depriving schedules, and begin to take responsibility for the health of their patients. They may see death for the first time. They must learn to stand in the midst of suffering, field questions they don’t know the answers to, and parse medical jargon. As they become more senior, they may travel back and forth from outpatient to inpatient settings. They may miss their kid’s soccer game to comfort a patient who is contemplating their own mortality. Amidst all of this, studies show that physician empathy levels decline throughout training, and rise again only later in a doctor’s career.

In 2011, I helped design a communication training program for all Cleveland Clinic physicians that included approaches to listening to and building empathy for our patients. We thought we would just teach some skills, but we soon realized we also needed to listen to the physicians themselves. Many were grappling with challenging conversations and feeling isolated by their unacknowledged struggle. We quickly changed the curriculum to allow physicians time to share their stories. Tales tumbled out—stories of abuse and loss, of witnessing humanity at its best and worst. Creating this space made room for their pain; it helped the healers heal.

Adopt reflective listening techniques

But empathy requires more than just listening and moving on. Listeners have to communicate—through words or actions—a deep understanding of what someone is going through. This is called reflective listening, and it’s the difference between these two conversations between friends:

  • Conversation One
    Laura: “Hey, great to see you. How are things?”
    Doug: “Oh hi. Good to see you. Things are ok—I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”
    Laura: “Yeah, I’m pretty worn out from working two jobs. How’s that new puppy you rescued?”
  • Conversation Two
    Laura: “Oh hi. Good to see you. Things are ok—I haven’t really been sleeping very well.”
    Doug: “You sound exhausted. Tell me what’s going on?”
    Laura: “Thanks for asking. My mom just passed away.”

In the first example, Laura could leave the conversation not even knowing Doug’s mother has died, and he also made the fatigue about him. In the second example, Doug reflects back the emotion he is hearing when he says, “You sound exhausted.” Naming the emotion serves to check that he heard the feeling correctly. He then follows with an encouraging statement, so that Laura feels comfortable enough to share what’s really going on.

Reflective listeners hear and then articulate the emotion or message back to the speaker. If the message is emotional, the reflection is a statement of empathy. If the message is information, then the listener states facts or data. When this happens, people feel heard and understood. A relationship begins.

Medical researchers Mary Catherine Beach and Thomas Inui describe relationship-centered care as having four features:

  1. Both patient and medic share a common goal, ideally the patient’s health.
  2. They both value each other’s expertise in reaching that goal. The patient has expertise in their disease; doctors have expertise in the science and medicine.
  3. As patient and clinician listen to each other, their relationship influences both sides. They call this reciprocal influence. In other words, the patient might actually tell the doctor he isn’t taking his medicine. The doctor might stay late to give him a call.
  4. The relationship is therapeutic on both sides, but it’s not friendship.

Human beings behave differently when they are in relationships, and we can be intentional about building relationships through reflective listening.

The cases for empathy

Being empathic is self-perpetuating. In healthcare, reflective listening and empathy can lead to behavior change, fewer malpractice claims, and less burnout–that feeling you get when your emotional bucket is empty and it’s hard to keep going.

University of Chicago researcher Nicholas Christakis studied the power of social contagion—one person influencing another to adopt a behavior like smoking or eating habits leading to obesity. He found that social contagion also applies to empathy. If I’m empathic to you, you’ll be empathic to the next person, and they to the next.

Fascinatingly, listening and empathy may be doctors’ greatest tools in reducing financial, physical, and emotional harm. If you look at why people file malpractice claims, the number-one cause isn’t inappropriate medical management, but a lack of human connection. Such shortcomings translate into millions of dollars in claims. In recordings of doctor-patient interactions that did not result in malpractice claims, the physicians use humor, let the patient talk, and explain what will happen during the visit.

Empathy and effective communication also increase physician retention, leading to additional economic benefit. We studied 1,500 physicians who participated in our communications courses as well as their patients, and found we had both enhanced their patients’ experiences and reduced physician burnout. At Cleveland Clinic, burned-out physicians are twice as likely to leave as those who remain engaged and satisfied, and it takes significant time, energy, and dollars to replace them.

Even in human-centered fields like medicine, social services, and development work, we often think that skills like reflective listening and empathy are soft, fluffy, and optional. The truth is, they are the only skills that can make another human feel cared for and connected—they just take some intentional practice.

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Three Ways Businesses Can Improve Their Women’s Economic Empowerment Programs

By Linda Midgley & Marissa Wesely

Many companies are spending millions of dollars to address issues of women’s economic empowerment across their value chains. These include efforts like Coca Cola’s 5by20 program seeking to economically empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020, and Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. program, providing life skills training to women workers in its factories. These companies and a growing number of others increasingly view advancing gender equality as the right thing to do, particularly in light of the momentum for business to contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But the deepening understanding of the strong business reasons for economically empowering women is equally, if not more, important. As Unilever CEO Paul Polman has stated: “When we empower women, society and the economy benefit, grow and thrive. … And it makes enormous economic sense too, with an overwhelming number of studies showing time and time again that gender equality is good for talent development, culture, innovation, leadership and performance.”

Yet even in this context, few companies appear to be designing their women’s economic empowerment programs for lasting impact—or measuring or reporting on that impact. Indeed, an October 2014 report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Dalberg, and Witter Ventures, found that only three of the 31 corporate-funded programs studied provided empirical evaluations with quantitative metrics beyond program size and scope. Without knowing if programs result in women gaining not only new skills and resources, but also control over those resources and the power to make economic decisions, companies cannot assess whether the intended economic empowerment will endure for women or for business.

So how can companies design and measure effective women’s economic empowerment programs? We believe these three elements are essential:

  • Employ women-centered design. Having the women affected at the heart of the design process will produce programs that address the critical building blocks for economically empowering women in a given context. Such programs are more likely to have impact on the business
  • Build in measurement tools from the start to assess a program’s impact on women and on business
  • Align social impact goals and reporting with existing measurement frameworks like the GRI Standards and the SDGs. Such alignment allows companies to replicate successful programs in similar contexts and bring them to scale

1. Contextualized women-centered design

Women’s economic empowerment requires interventions that are customized to each setting. What makes sense to empower factory workers in Bangladesh may not meet the needs of smallholder farmers in Kenya. To design context-specific programs, companies must work to identify the barriers preventing women from realizing their full economic potential: Are they constrained by lack of education or skills? Are they limited by violence in their homes or their workplaces, by laws, customs, or safely issues that limit their mobility, or by taking on a disproportionate share of unpaid household or care obligations? Do social norms limit their decision-making power in households and communities?

Designing effective programs in highly local contexts requires gathering input from the women that a company is trying to empower. Local women’s organizations are an oft-overlooked resource in gathering this critical context. Without this input, companies often default to solutions that are easily accessible and simple to scale—programs to train or mentor women, or to provide resources to build or advance in a business. While these interventions may be helpful, without a deeper understanding of the local gender context, they may not lead to the desired long-term impact for women or for business. For example, a recent study of gender in rural Africa covering 2,000 households in six countries found that land ownership alone—often a key focus of public and private women’s economic empowerment programs in farming communities—did not lead to stronger bargaining power or higher incomes for women. “[P]olicymakers … should adopt a multifaceted approach that includes aspects beyond agriculture,” the author noted. “These include issues of sexual and reproductive rights, for instance, and freeing women from the heavy and time-consuming drudgery of domestic work in poor, rural settings. … Women’s lack of empowerment is also related to their limited mobility, which makes it harder for them to reach markets.”

The ICRW report mentioned above described eight building blocks for sustainable women’s economic empowerment. We have adapted these as follows:

Some companies leading the way on women’s economic empowerment issues have developed an appreciation of the need to address multiple building blocks to achieve lasting impact. Among those are some cocoa companies participating in Cocoa Action, a voluntary, industry-wide strategy that engages the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana and other key stakeholders.

The business case for empowering more women involved in cocoa production is quite clear; companies participating in Cocoa Action recognize the need to build stronger farming communities for a more stable and sustainable supply chain, and recognize the importance of truly empowering women farmers in this process. The Mars Chocolate Women’s Empowerment Plan and Cargill’s work on women’s empowerment as part of Cargill’s Cocoa Promise are two examples. To increase the number of women attending farmer training schools from the 5 percent reported in a 2016 study, Cargill is looking closely at issues like:

  • Whether taking women’s household responsibilities into account when selecting the location and timing of trainings can make a difference
  • Building women-only classes where women feel safe to speak up and lead
  • Presenting materials that show women in leadership roles as role models

Unilever is also working to engage women in farmer field schools by supporting one supplier’s development of a mobile education platform for Indian gherkin farmers. The flexibility of the platform addresses issues presented by more traditional farmer trainings. It includes a digital textbook on tablets, and videos made locally by field officers. The videos star local farmers and many of them feature women as decisionmakers, leaders, and teachers on their farms. The use of videos also enables flexible viewing hours and helps break down literacy barriers. Early results of the pilot showed a 300 percent increase in reach, with women outnumbering men at training sessions.

Of course, building block design principles hold true in sectors and settings outside agriculture. Gap Inc.’s P.A.C.E. program—one of the longest-running and successful life-skills programs for female factory workers—was built with a holistic approach. The curriculum addresses areas including reproductive health, legal literacy, and gender roles, as well as more commonly taught life skills like communication and problem solving.

2. Measure impact on women and business

Creating a measurement framework that can track successes and failures and allow for replication and adaptation is equally important. While contextualized design is the best way to ensure that impact for women and business is transformative and not fleeting, this approach is typically more time-consuming than program development approaches that do not take local issues into account. In order to achieve scale using this approach, companies will need to identify the most successful women’s economic empowerment programs and implement them broadly in similar contexts. Figuring out which programs are the most successful is not easy, as companies must measure both the social and business impact.

On the social side, many corporate women’s economic empowerment programs began in philanthropic contexts, with little understanding of social impact measurement beyond counting the number of women “touched” by a program or increases in a woman’s income. For many of these programs, little consideration was given to measuring indicators of lasting impact, like changes over time in women’s and men’s knowledge, attitudes, behavior, and social status.

In the farmer field school example, the company might want to measure factors like whether female participants felt they had greater decision-making authority in the household and whether household tasks were shared more equally, in addition to changes in the number of women attending farmer field schools. Other measures of more lasting change might be whether women reported not just increased income but also control over that income. Measurement of impact over time might even extend to whether women had greater confidence in participating in—and willingness to lead—co-operatives or other community initiatives. Another Cocoa Action member, Mondelez, considered a number of these factors in a report on its experience building women’s leadership within cocoa farming in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Designing women’s economic empowerment programs with business impact in mind is even more rare. Few programs even take into account how social impact can play a role in creating value for the business. Bringing women’s economic empowerment programs out of the sphere of pure philanthropy means recognizing the integral links between business and social value and working across a company to ensure that business and social metrics are linked.

Cocoa Action developed a framework for the companies in its network that links and measures business and social impact. The framework has dual long-term goals of “increased yields” and “thriving communities,” with the latter including increased opportunity, capability, and women’s influence as one targeted outcome intended to also have a positive effect on productivity and yields. By linking business and social impact, and developing meaningful metrics for both, it’s more likely that successful programs will become embedded in a business and shared publicly, increasing opportunities for replication and scaling.

3. Report on impact in a way that businesses recognize

The final element to enable companies to identify and replicate successful women’s economic empowerment programs, is to measure and report on impact—both internally and externally—in a way which businesses recognize. This allows key decision makers inside the business to make better decisions about which programs to replicate. In addition, public reporting on program impact will enable others to identify successful programs for replication in their companies.

There are several ways to report impact for the business world. First, qualitative description of a program’s successes and learnings should be backed up by quantitative impact data. This requires a baseline measurement at the start of the project and continued tracking over time to see whether the effects are lasting. Corporate decision makers rely on data, and program sustainability and replication will likely depend on the quality of this data. This will likely include appropriate gender disaggregated data.

While any metric should fit the program context and be based on a thorough understanding of the building blocks of women’s economic empowerment, there are also significant advantages in terms of efficiency and internal acceptance to aligning with existing reporting frameworks like the GRI standards or SASB, both of which are used for business sustainability reporting.

Aligning impact measurement and reporting with the SDGs is even more important. The SDGs apply to all countries, all sectors, and all actors in society. They provide a common language for reporting on the world’s sustainable development challenges and for bringing actors together along the value chain.

Aligning reporting with the SDGs instantly makes the program’s contribution to women’s economic empowerment clear. For instance, should the Cargill’s farmer field schools result in promotion of shared responsibility within the household, that would advance one of the stated targets of SDG 5: Gender Equality, on recognizing the value of unpaid care work. If more women were participating as leaders in cocoa cooperatives after going through the farmer field school program, it would be advancing another target of SDG 5: ensuring women’s full and effective participation and opportunities for leadership. This in turn would have a positive effect on various targets under SDG 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth, through improving productivity and yields.

It might seem as though there is a contradiction between metrics that offer specific, contextual insight, and aligning with existing frameworks which by their nature are more general. In practice, it’s about finding a balance between the two; maximizing insight into contextual nuance for deeper impact, while sharing that impact broadly using more widely recognized indicators for sustainability and scaling.

Impact metrics that are more recognizable for stakeholders within the company are easier to interpret in the business context, leading to a better understanding of program value and better decision making. Impact metrics that are more recognizable for external stakeholders, like investors, can give them a better understanding of the long-term impact and value the company is creating, making investment more likely. Finally, aligning with existing metrics can also lead to process efficiency gains and reduce the administrative burden of data collection and reporting.

Creating lasting impact, at scale

Today, leading companies increasingly see opportunities to economically empower women across their value chain to create lasting change for women, their communities, and the world. Yet it still is often hard for companies to know where to start. First steps may simply involve doing an assessment and analysis to understand where in the value chain women are critical to the business, or putting a gender lens on existing programs for employees or suppliers to see if the programs are equally effective for women and men. Once companies see where increased focus on women’s economic empowerment can have real business impact, working closely with the women targeted to co-design programs will ensure that they are designed for transformative social impact from the start. And by taking time at the outset to incorporate broadly used metrics to measure social and business impact, companies will be able to share successes and failures more effectively, fostering replication of the most impactful models and expanding benefits for all.

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Getting the Best Possible Failures in Philanthropy

By Jen Ford Reedy

We in the foundation world talk a lot about embracing failure, but it’s not something to take lightly. When a social or environmental investment fails, it can negatively disrupt people’s lives and erode community trust. It can also have a huge opportunity cost, taking resources and energy away from other efforts. This is why risk mitigation planning is a standard part of good philanthropic practice, and why we regularly ask ourselves: How can we design our strategies to reduce the chance of failure?

But while success should always be the goal, it’s important to remember that not all failures are created equal. There are good failures and bad failures. Many investments don’t achieve their intended outcomes, but they nevertheless: 1) contribute knowledge to the field, 2) have a significant, positive, but unintended consequence, or 3) increase the capacity of all involved to try other approaches.

Given this, I suggest we add another element to our standard practice: failure optimization planning. How can we design our strategies so that if they do fail, they will be good failures?

1. Failures that contribute to knowledge in the field

A good failure means the entire field learned, not just a single institution. It means that people in philanthropy or the field where you intervened know something they didn’t know before, and it will change what they do going forward. It means that the intervention tested something truly new, that we know it didn’t work in the way we intended, and that we shared the lesson with others in an actionable form.

For all we talk about learning, foundations rarely hit this high bar.

The best example I can find of this is the Rockefeller Foundation’s Minority Single Parent Demonstration project, launched in the 1980s. It was a large-scale, welfare-to-work initiative, involving 4,000 women in four cities. It actually had a control group, which is very rare in foundation initiatives. This allowed Rockefeller Foundation to more truly evaluate impact than is usual in our field. The foundation documented and shared lessons from the initiative broadly—for example, the importance of child care in supporting women to work—informing both public policy and philanthropy. (For more on this initiative and the other good failure examples I use here, see Joel Fleishman’s The Foundation: How Private Wealth Is Changing the World and its accompanying casebook.)

How can we make this type of failure more common? First, we must ensure that we are trying something new by doing the up-front work to understand what others have already done and incorporate lessons from previous efforts into our project design. Foundations must familiarize themselves with relevant research, and test ideas and plans with both colleagues at other foundations and leaders working in the space. Second, we have to actually assess the results and share what we learn. If we have wonderful learning conversations in our offices, but don’t share our knowledge with the world, it’s not a good failure—others might be reinventing wheels and repeating our mistakes.

2. Failures that have significant, positive unintended consequences

Successful or not, interventions usually don’t go as planned. But most philanthropic failures have some silver lining. Something good almost always happens, even when the overall effort does not go well. If that good thing is very significant—the test is if you would have made the original investment if you’d known it would have that positive outcome—it’s a good failure.

Ford Foundation’s efforts in the 1960s to build strong university economics departments in Indonesia is a good example of this. Ford sent Indonesian students to get doctorate degrees at Harvard and Stanford, and trained them for careers in academia. Then, when Suharto became the second President of Indonesia, he brought a number of those folks into government. This undermined the original goal of strengthening the country’s economics departments, but it had an equally—if not more—positive impact by strengthening Indonesia’s capacity for economic planning and policy.

With this type of failure, the positive outcome is unintended and is therefore usually unexpected. We can’t exactly plan for that, but we can improve our odds of this kind of good failure by making our strategies flexible enough to take advantage of new paths and opportunities that emerge. And if we are clear about our biggest-picture definition of success at the outset—for example, for an educational initiative that might mean framing the ultimate objective as preparing kids for life success vs. proving that a specific program works—it is a lot easier to recognize those paths and opportunities. We can also make it clear to grantees and partners that we want to hear the real truth about how things are going and help problem-solve when things go awry. This makes it easier for us all to let go of plans and focus on having the most possible impact, whatever happens.

3. Failures that increase the capacity of systems to try other approaches

Sometimes in philanthropy, we delight in the idea of “disrupting” systems. But when “disruption” goes wrong, it can become destructive—particularly when it comes to critical human-support systems. If, however, our partners emerge from a failed effort stronger and better-positioned to address the challenge in a new way, then I call that a good failure. Then the failure is not a step back, but rather a step forward.

My favorite example of this is the Lasker Foundation’s work to get the US government to wage a “War on Cancer.” It is regularly cited as both one of philanthropy’s biggest failures and one of its greatest successes. How did it earn both distinctions? It did not achieve its goal of curing cancer, but it had an enormous impact on the capacity for medical research in the United States, and the resulting research extended many lives. Over time, public expectations for and commitment to the effort increased and, along with that, the number of and strength of research institutions engaged in the effort grew tremendously. The system was left stronger, and progress continued long after the original timeline for success.

This is the type of good failure philanthropy can most consistently achieve. We can improve the odds of making progress by designing strategies that build lasting capacity in people and organizations. In other words, rather than defining our work as advancing a particular intervention, we can think about it as building capacity toward that intervention. The difference in mindset might be subtle, but it can change a lot. In practice, this means understanding the current capacity of central players, and investing in developing the necessary individual skills and institutional capabilities. It means setting a timeline that allows partners to plan and manage the work well, and not pushing a particular intervention at the expense of other critical elements of an organization’s or a system’s health. It also means ensuring that we design all our strategies to leave the systems we work in and the partners we work with stronger than we found them.

No matter how clever we are, there is always a chance our investments will fail. Optimizing our failures may require moving more slowly, being more flexible in our goals and plans, and conceiving of our work a little more broadly. Fortunately, the same strategies we would use to optimize our failures will also increase our chances of success.

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Wielding Philanthropic Leadership With, not For

By Grant Oliphant

On a recent summer evening in East Pittsburgh, Pa., 17-year-old Antwon Rose’s life came to a violent and premature end when a police officer shot him three times in the back as he ran from a traffic stop. The teenager, a popular high school student preparing for college and adulthood, was unarmed and posed no threat to the officer or the public. Antwon was black.

What does the unjust killing of a young African-American have to do with courageous and moral leadership in philanthropy? Everything, I believe.

One might ask the same question about an immigration policy that criminalizes asylum-seekers and tears children from their families. Or the sight of the most powerful men in the land maligning a woman for accusing one of their own of a disqualifying act. Or a census designed to undercount vulnerable populations. Or the targeting of DREAMers. Or official rhetoric denigrating black football players when they take a knee to protest racial injustice. Or any of the other abhorrent ways in which values of tolerance, compassion, and fairness are deliberately supplanted by hate, prejudice, and discord.

In a time when we often feel submerged in daily madness, it can be tempting for philanthropy, steeped as it is in patience and privilege, to believe its high-minded role is to stay above the fray. Certainly, part of philanthropy’s presumed value is its capacity to identify and sustain action on issues beyond the realm of the daily news. Before the last US presidential election, a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey showed that foundation executives were already ranking equity and wealth disparity along with climate change as the most important issues of our time.

But we can never use our devotion to solving society’s defining issues as an excuse to stand apart from its defining moments.

We are in one of those moments now. We cannot wish away the toxicity that has so insidiously risen to the surface in US policies and rhetoric as a passing moment. The angry roar of tensions that run deep in our culture represents an ancient struggle over power and privilege, gender and race, and discrimination and oppression that has been with us for generations.

Philanthropy has always claimed to stand on one side of that struggle—on the side of freedom versus oppression, and on the side of a genuinely just society consistent with our stated values versus the vicious defense of a status quo that works only for some. Yet even at a moment like this, when the stakes are so high for everything we profess to believe in, we struggle to find our voice.

Little wonder. We find ourselves in a place where it can feel “political” for nonprofit organizations simply to defend and uphold their long-held values and missions. At a time when decency, civility, and respect are under assault; when a free press is under threat, along with trust in science and our democratic systems of government; and when leaders ridicule the idea of a diverse and inclusive future, and instead espouse a grim, zero-sum, Darwinian fight for control of the future, the civic sector itself can be seen—as it is in totalitarian societies—as inherently subversive.

So it is easy to fall quiet. But the price for that is high, and we pay for it in the sacrifice of our own values. As my friend and colleague Darren Walker, president at the Ford Foundation, has so aptly put it: “Look, we’re afraid of sticking our necks out, and we’re afraid of what people might think, and we play it cautious. This is not a time to play it cautious.”

The essence of defining moments is that they force us to decide where we stand and what we stand for. What does it mean to lead morally in such a time? What is this moment calling for us to do? I have pondered these questions long and hard. I have written and spoken of them many times, and, still, they keep me awake at night.

I always return to the unequivocal belief that we, as foundation leaders, and our nonprofit partners occupy a supremely privileged and opportune position. And with that comes enormous responsibility and obligation.

If I have one wish for our field right now, it is that we would finally weigh our silences as carefully as we do our words. For the sake of all the communities we claim to support, it is our role to speak out as clearly and as forcefully as we can. Not in a truly partisan way, but as an unembarrassed, bold embrace of the principles we believe in.

When someone infringes on those principles, it is neither political nor partisan to call that behavior what it is. When leaders advance policies that will hurt and marginalize the vulnerable, poison our air and water, or harm our children’s future, it is neither political nor partisan—nor really all that courageous—to fight for something better and to express that through all the tools at our disposal.

Sometimes a voice can feel a lonely and inadequate thing. I have adopted as a kind of personal mantra a couplet from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” about the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany: “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie.”

Foundations, of course, have more than a voice—and frankly, much more to learn in this leadership moment. More than ever before, being a courageous and ethical leader in this field is about doing with not for, and learning to listen. And we must get better at sharing the power we like to pretend we don’t have by encouraging, empowering, and enabling others.

For example, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial on Martin Luther King Day excusing President Trump’s use of the phrase “shithole countries” to describe African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador, Pittsburgh Foundation President Max King joined me in responding with an unequivocal public rebuke. We posted the response on The Heinz Endowments’ website, and our message reached more than one million people across the United States via social media.

Additionally, in the wake of events surrounding the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, last year, The Heinz Endowments hosted almost 400 grantee partners at a seminar called “Nonprofits and the Call to Moral Leadership.” The seminar gave grantees a platform for expressing their concerns and challenges at a time when their long-held values are under threat. We will host a second seminar this fall.

But in an era abound with “folded lies,” the power of our voice is essential. It is through our voice that we can state the values that drive the purpose that defines all the other resources a foundation can bring to bear on its giving, its leadership, its networks and its reputation.

We know that our country and our communities have no future unless they continue the great journey toward a more inclusive, equitable, and compassionate future. Our own efforts must match the sacrifices of those who over generations have carried us along in that journey.

In her book Tomorrow is Now, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “The battle isn’t won unless it’s your business, unless you care with all your heart that it should be won, unless you hold fast and refuse to panic when the going is rough, unless you reject all attempts to frighten you, unless you refuse to be overwhelmed by any possible dangers that may never arise …”

If we truly care about creating a more equitable future, philanthropy must embrace every moment in the struggle as its own, every Antwon Rose as a personal loss, every infringement on the dignity and lives of others as an infringement on the lives of us all. We must make it our business and not be afraid to speak.

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How to Create Better Nonprofit Executive Teams

By Libbie Landles-Cobb, Henry Barmeier & Kirk Kramer

In just 13 years, the Achievement Network (ANet) has grown from a Boston-based start-up to national organization with an integrated system of tools and training that supports great teaching. Much of its growth has taken place since Mora Segal became CEO in 2011. ANet’s national footprint, budget, and staff all have tripled over the past seven years, a tribute, Segal readily acknowledges, to the effective functioning of the organization’s executive team.

Leading any enterprise is a challenge, especially for organizations growing in size and complexity. The job readily expands beyond the capacity of any single leader. That’s why CEOs of many nonprofits establish executive teams—groups of senior leaders who work together to chart the organization’s direction and keep it on track toward its goals.

Shaping a high-performing executive team is no easy task, as Segal discovered. The senior leaders she inherited had done a good job of leading their individual departments, but they were not clear about the role that they should play to support a growing organization. As a team, they faced a number of challenges, including making timely decisions, communicating with ANet’s geographically dispersed staff, and gathering input from growing numbers of school and district partners.

Since her arrival, Segal has led ANet’s executive team on a journey to address these and other issues, including a more explicit focus on tackling the issue of educational inequity through an anti-racism lens. Today, the team has a shared vision for the important work it must do. And it functions as a close-knit group, with increased trust helping to unlock individuals’ ability to engage together on organization-wide questions, in addition to contributing in their respective areas of functional expertise. Making the most of their collective talent has been crucial as the team has guided ANet through a period of rapid growth.

While Segal played a critical role in mapping this journey for the team, she deflects taking sole credit. “I learned alongside and with my team,” explains Segal, who views the team dynamic as one of shared ownership. She also emphasizes that fine-tuning the team’s effectiveness has been “a slow, methodical, thoughtful process—not something that happened overnight.”

Unlike ANet, most nonprofits falter when it comes to executive team effectiveness, characterized by capable CEO leadership, clarity on the team’s role, and productive group interactions. Only 25 percent of the 362 executive team members responding to a recent Bridgespan Group diagnostic survey “strongly agreed” that their CEO effectively addresses team dynamics and performance challenges. Only 19 percent strongly agreed that their team focuses on the right work, and just 17 percent strongly agreed that they use their executive team meeting time well.

Our survey results came as no surprise to leadership coaches we interviewed. “Executive teams are an underperforming asset,” says consultant and leadership expert Peter Thies, president of The River Group. “It’s a huge investment and opportunity cost whenever you have top executives spending time together, yet executive teams tend to provide the fewest tangible results among leadership teams.”

Nonetheless, the survey also showed that roughly half of the respondents rated their team’s performance as “good,” or a three out of a possible four on overall effectiveness. But good isn’t necessarily good enough. The upside potential of more effective CEO leadership, more clarity around the work of the team, and more productive team interactions can yield big gains for an organization—something we’ve seen at Bridgespan in our work over 15 years with hundreds of nonprofits. In short, the challenge is to advance from good to great.

The Role of an Executive Team

Most nonprofit CEOs have a set of direct reports that meet regularly. At the most basic level, this group shares departmental information and receives updates from the CEO about recent decisions. While the direct reports comprise a group of senior managers, they do not necessarily work together as a team.

By contrast, an executive team takes on tasks that stand apart from the work individual members do as department heads. An executive team collaborates to shape organization-wide decisions and shares responsibility for the organization’s results.

Not all nonprofits need an executive team that performs such work. For example, small nonprofits may only require a group that meets regularly to share updates. The decision to create an executive team rests on the size, complexity, and level of cross-organizational decision making required to lead the organization.

For nonprofits with an executive team, the team’s effectiveness is essential for the organization’s success. But despite their importance, surprisingly little has been written about them. In the for-profit arena, leadership experts have built an industry around executive leadership development and team building, though with minimal focus on executive teams. Nonprofit executive teams have gone virtually unnoticed.

Our research is informed by and builds upon the leadership and team-building work of others to address the singular needs of nonprofit executive teams. Our survey, a diagnostic self-assessment, received responses from 362 nonprofit executive team members. In addition, we interviewed more than two dozen nonprofit leaders and an equal number of experts or coaches from academia and consulting. We also drew on our advisory experience in five cities with more than 200 nonprofit executive teams participating in Bridgespan’s Leading for Impact program, a two-year engagement that helps nonprofit executive teams hone their management skills. Out of this research, we distilled a sequence of five steps, framed as questions, that have helped most executive teams increase their overall effectiveness—even move from good to great.

5 Questions to Guide an Effective Executive Team

1. Is the CEO Effectively Managing the Executive Team?

The CEO is in charge of the executive team. As head of the organization, CEOs are accountable for results and responsible for determining what the executive team must do to achieve those results. This played out in our survey, interviews, and in our experience with clients: in high-performing executive teams, the CEO takes charge of the team’s form and function.

Specifically, these CEOs set expectations and define the executive team’s work, steer meeting agendas, and support team members to grow while holding them accountable for performance. Managing the team does not require doing all of the day-to-day work of team coordination. In fact, many CEOs choose to delegate certain tasks to a deputy or other executive team members, such as getting input on potential meeting agenda items. (See “Delegating Without Abdicating” at end of article.) However, effective delegation is not a substitute for the CEO’s engagement in the team’s work.

Managing an executive team effectively also requires that CEOs must understand their own decision-making style and preferences and set clear expectations on which decisions will be their call (or another team member’s decision) based on team input and discussion, and which will be consensus decisions. Once those ground rules are established, it’s important to follow through on those expectations. Lack of clarity or inconsistency here can create problems for the team, such as when a CEO seems to guide a team toward a consensus decision only to exercise a pocket veto if the decision wasn’t what the CEO personally preferred.

Many nonprofit CEOs lack the experience to perform their role as executive team leader. Nonprofit boards often prioritize external capabilities—such as fundraising or advocacy—over internal leadership skills when they search for CEO candidates. And even those who have strong internal capabilities are commonly stretched thin. As a result, it’s not surprising that only one in four survey respondents strongly agreed that their CEO addresses team dynamics and performance challenges in a timely and effective way.

Skillful team management makes a big difference. The executive coaches we spoke with agreed that CEO leadership was the single most important factor in making teams highly effective. “The CEO sets the tone for the executive team,” says Leslie Bonner, an adviser to nonprofits and a leading expert on nonprofit leadership. “If they don’t prioritize the team’s work or embody the productive behaviors required to do that work, it is very difficult for the team to work effectively.”

CEOs also set the culture of the organization “by identifying the underlying values that support the organization’s mission,” says Maria Hernandez, practice leader with InclusionINC, a global consulting firm specializing in inclusion and diversity. “People can be organized around great task management and great processes, but miss the mark on living the vision and mission of the organization that is to serve a diverse community.”

Jerry Rubin’s experience reshaping the executive team at Jewish Vocational Service of Boston is instructive. Rubin, president and CEO since 2007, leads one of the largest workforce development agencies in New England, employing about 160 staff with an annual budget of $14 million. For years, Rubin had delegated management of the executive team to the COO, with whom he had a close working relationship. The COO’s retirement in 2017 led to a cascade of promotions and new faces on the executive team, and created an opportunity for Rubin to rethink how he managed the group.

Rubin began by re-imagining the basic architecture of the executive team. He clarified which critical decisions the organization’s leadership needed to make, and exactly who should make those decisions. With this clarity, he saw the need for two different teams: a smaller executive team focused on strategy and policy, and a larger management team (including the executive team and programmatic vice presidents) focused on cross-organizational operational issues.

Then, with the help of an executive coach, Rubin took a more active role in the work of the executive team, taking charge of its agenda, and being explicit about the role he and other members would play. Rubin and his new COO took the opportunity to re-set norms across the teams. They also created a leadership onboarding program for new members of both teams, including relationship building and training in core management skills.

Rubin has seen the benefits of taking a more active approach to leading the executive team. “We now have a genuine leadership pipeline and some real options for leadership succession in the future,” he says. “And, faced with some major challenges as we seek to sustain our rapid growth, we have substantially increased the level of strategic thinking, and thinkers, engaged in our most central strategic challenges and opportunities. That has a big impact on how quickly you can respond and react.”

2. Is the Executive Team Focused on the Most Important Work?

Getting clear about the most important things for the team to focus on—and just as important where it shouldn’t spend its valuable time—is critical in determining who should participate and how the team should conduct its business. Clarity, however, eludes many teams. Only 19 percent of our survey respondents strongly agreed that their executive team focuses on the right work.

Typically, the right work involves guiding the organization toward achieving its top priorities and ensuring effective cross-departmental decision making and resource allocation. The executive team also provides an effective forum for input and discussion that helps the CEO make better decisions. In short, executive teams help CEOs do their job of leading the organization.

The team, however, doesn’t necessarily need to play a role in all of an organization’s priorities. Some may best be addressed by the CEO alone (like strengthening key funder relationships) or in consultation with specific departments or functions (like making specific programmatic decisions). As organizational behavior expert Ruth Wageman puts it, the trick is to determine “what are the critical few things that only this team of senior leaders, of all people in this organization, need to accomplish together versus individually or by other groups?”

Executive teams can home in on the handful of critical areas by focusing on those issues that meet the following two criteria:

• What issues are the most interdependent? Those involving multiple units or functions where cross-leader discussion is critical for effective decision making.

• What issues have the highest stakes? Those having the most impact on the organization’s strategic clarity and priorities, programmatic and organizational effectiveness, development of future leaders, external reputation, and financial sustainability.

The hours the executive team spend together are the most expensive on the payroll. The more the executive team focuses on issues that are highly interdependent and have the highest stakes, the greater the return on investment the executive team will have for the CEO and the organization.

The more the executive team focuses on issues that are highly interdependent and have the highest stakes, the greater the return on investment the executive team will have for the CEO and the organization.

Once an executive team is clear about its work, it needs to determine what role it will play in that work. For some issues, the team’s role will be to provide input on a decision that someone else (either the CEO or other individual or team) is responsible for making. For others, the team may make a decision itself. It is likely the team’s role will differ by priority, or even by specific elements within a priority, so continuing to clarify what role the team is playing is critical to optimizing the team’s time together.

Maria Kim came to understand the importance of zeroing in on high stakes issues after she became president and CEO of Cara Chicago in 2014. Cara Chicago is a $10-million workforce development social enterprise with 80 employees. Kim had been with the organization for nine years when she took the helm. After some time leading its executive team, Kim identified two important ways the group could distinctively support Cara’s success.

First, Kim saw a need for the executive team to facilitate more agreement between the board and the staff. She had observed that the two were not always on the same page about strategic priorities, such as how to evaluate new business opportunities. For instance, a new social enterprise contract seemed like an opportunity for some and an economic risk to others. The lack of consistent alignment led the organization to waste time and energy. To make progress on this front, Maria clarified the executive team’s mandate to “source up and share out”—meaning that the executive team decides which priority issues to bring to the board for advice and regularly keeps the staff informed of board decisions.

Second, Kim clarified the kinds of topics for executive team discussion and decision. Previously, the executive team spent much of its meetings “sharing random, miscellaneous stuff, as opposed to things that were thorny and really either advancing or hindering strategy,” Kim recalls. By agreeing to focus only on high stakes issues, the executive team has begun to increasingly look at the bigger picture. For example, when the lease on one of their sites recently came up, they elevated the discussion from the operational question of whether to sign a new lease, to the strategic question of how much value the site was delivering.

Better alignment with the board and greater clarity around executive team tasks “has increased our operational efficiency,” says Kim. “If the team is humming, the rest of the organization moves faster, and people work better together and get more stuff done.”

3. Does Executive Team Composition Support Its Ability to Do the Work?

CEOs who rated their teams as highly effective balanced two critical questions: Does the team have the key perspectives and competencies to do its work? Is the team a manageable size?

Finding the right combination of perspectives and competencies may not result in a team composed only of the CEO’s direct reports. While it’s critical that all executive team members be able to take a big-picture perspective and have business acumen, CEOs may choose to include non-direct reports whose unique skills are essential to the team’s work. For instance, executive teams may include the director of human resources or a director of measurement and learning even if these individuals do not report directly to the CEO.

Diversity among executive team members is another critical consideration. Currently, most nonprofit executive teams systematically under-represent people of color and do not reflect the diversity of the communities their organizations serve. This issue has drawn increasing attention, with stepped-up efforts to address it. (See “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the end of this article.)

Including all the right perspectives can sometimes be at odds with keeping the team a manageable size. In fact, many nonprofit executive teams are too big. Almost one third of survey respondents reported having eight or more members, the upper limit of what research has found to be an ideal team size to have effective strategic discussions and team cohesion. A common rationale for a large executive team is to increase inclusion and ensure leaders across the organization stay informed and coordinated. In these instances, CEOs could consider having two leadership teams—a smaller executive team for making critical organization-wide decisions, and a larger management team for maintaining coordination among departments. Executive and management teams should continually seek to augment their expertise and perspectives by gathering input from stakeholders (such as staff, clients, and community members) central to the issues on which they are working.

Whatever the team’s size, changing who sits at the table is difficult, but maintaining a status quo that isn’t working comes at a greater cost to team and organizational effectiveness. Significant change events, such as the arrival of a new CEO or strategic pivots, present opportunities for reconsidering and altering a team composition. Many CEOs told us, however, that they wished they hadn’t waited for the perfect time to make changes, particularly when it came to removing detractors who held the team back.

Nick Turner’s experience speaks to the challenges of reshaping an executive team. In August 2013, he became the fifth president of the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization with a budget of $107 million and 210 employees. He spent two and a half years working with the board, staff, and stakeholders on a plan for a strategic shift that would require considerable change in the organization’s business model, infrastructure, and culture.

The plan also required a retooled executive team. Within a year of beginning this shift, five of the six members of the original team had left the organization. Some didn’t have the needed skills. Others chafed at the transformation from a “risk-averse and ‘small c’ conservative organization” to one with big, bold dreams for the future, recalls Turner.

To carry out the new strategic plan, Turner sought executive team members with two qualities: a sense of loyalty to the institution and its well-being, and the ability to disagree with one another constructively. He also sought to increase representation of leaders of color.

Even with the right people in place, Turner concedes that he has struggled to unify them behind the longer-term strategic direction. “One challenge of leading a changing organization is that the place where you show up to work is operating in part on old conventions, expectations, and systems. That is where people’s heads and habits are,” says Turner. He has asked all team members to carve out 10 to 15 percent of their time to concentrate on elements of “the Vera we envision in five years,” in the belief that a team engaged together on “slow-simmer, future-state” issues has the best chance of advancing the institutional transformation Vera is seeking.

4. Do Meeting and Communication Processes Support Superior Decisions and Execution?

Well-managed processes around meetings and internal communications are essential for a successful executive team. “Meetings are the lynchpin of putting this all together,” says Pat Lencioni, a best-selling author on leadership and organizational health. “They’re the place where everything else comes to life, and where you demonstrate whether you are an effective team or not.” Yet, ineffective meetings and poor staff communications stood out as major pain points in our survey. Only 17 percent of our survey respondents strongly agreed that they have effective meetings, and only 11 percent said they communicate well with the rest of the organization.

Effective meetings require establishing the right practices, such as sufficient advance notice, clear purpose, the right amount of time and right location, and, often, pre-reads to prepare everyone for productive discussions. The most productive use of time also requires management of agendas to ensure that the urgent—immediate or unanticipated problems—doesn’t consistently crowd out the high-priority work the team needs to do.

Effective teams use different types of meetings for different types of work. Regular weekly or bi-weekly check-ins are effective for sharing updates and addressing immediate issues. Teams often need longer, less frequent planning meetings to wrestle with important decisions or dive deep on ongoing issues, such as developing talent or budgeting. Sometimes teams may need day-long or multiday retreats for team building, annual planning, or strategy sessions. The timing and cadence of these different types of meetings should be planned around the organization’s calendar, including talent reviews, budgeting cycles, and board meetings.

Effective executive teams tend to conclude their meetings with agreement on decisions and actions, and a plan for following up and communicating with staff. Doing this well builds trust in the leadership, generates clarity around organizational priorities, and improves overall execution. Yet, our survey respondents gave executive team communications with the rest of the organization the lowest rating of all the questions we asked.

“Productive action begins with productive communication,” says Dekkers Davidson, a strategy consultant and former CEO of companies large and small. “You have to be sure your communication is actually building alignment between the executive team and the rest of the organization.” To build alignment through communication, CEOs and experts we interviewed said that executive teams can connect ongoing updates and decisions back to the organization’s top priorities, and communicate overall progress against these priorities several times a year.

Mora Segal made effective meetings and follow-up a priority at ANet. After struggling to find the time to assemble team agendas, Segal delegated the process to her chief of staff, who recommends agendas for Segal’s final approval and then coaches team members on how to prepare for effective presentations of their agenda topics. Segal expects team members to come prepared with a clear, well-informed recommendation that sparks discussion leading to a final decision.

Meeting preparation also includes pre-work for the team, ranging from 15 minutes to one hour. Pre-work caters to the processing style of those who need time in advance to absorb new information, accommodates different thinking styles, and improves decision making by increasing productive engagement in the meeting. During the meeting, the team uses a variety of structures to engage in dialogue including silent reflection, conversation on a Google Doc, full group discussion or pair discussions “to make sure that different learning styles are honored and each individual is equipped to bring their best to the group,” explains Segal.

The attention to process has helped the team to develop “a more iterative style with rounds of discussion, feedback, and debate,” says Segal. “We’ve become much clearer on how decision making happens.”

ANet also has honed its process for communicating executive team decisions with the rest of the organization. Taking the advice of several executive team members, Segal created a four-person working group, a subset of the executive team, to design the content and process for communicating major decisions to the staff. “Our goal is to ensure that the organization has trust and confidence in the leadership,” Segal explains. Focusing on the process of decision making and communication of decisions distinctly “allowed us to develop them as separate muscles.”

The working group is pushing the envelope for more transparency around decisions that affect people’s lives and jobs. “When something is complex, we spend time together thinking about the key message, and then the sub-group figures out how to communicate it,” says Segal. The working group shares proposed messages with a broader leadership team to get feedback and ensure consistent understanding before communicating throughout the organization. The results have been encouraging. Staff retention has remained steady and organizational confidence in ANet’s long-term direction has improved. Staff decisions are also more consistent with ANet’s strategy as they continue to test new levels of transparency, says Segal.

5. Does the Team’s Dynamic Foster the Right Conversations and Results?

Building a cohesive executive team is essential for organizational success. A cohesive team also sets the tone for the rest of the organization, modeling the importance of collaborative behavior. Thirty-six percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that their executive team members work well together, higher than most survey responses. Even so, our interviews suggest that many teams underinvest in developing a productive working dynamic tailored to their specific work, expecting this to happen without intentional effort.

“When people are together just by virtue of sitting next to each other, that is not enough to make a team,” says Kim, Cara Chicago’s CEO. Organizational strategy adviser and best-selling author Jon Katzenbach underscores that, “the successful teams we’ve observed all gave themselves the time to learn to be a team.”

Executive teams often must grapple with a pervasive culture of conflict aversion—a characteristic typical of nonprofits. In interviews with executives of nonprofit organizations, we frequently heard that team members hesitate to question a colleague’s view or openly disagree. This reticence reflects a common nonprofit ethos of “we’re all in this together” so don’t rock the boat. But conflict aversion can come at a significant cost. Not only does the team miss out on the opportunity to wrestle together with hard questions, but disagreements can surface in hallway conversations, breeding mistrust.

Our research identified a set of dynamics that support productive engagement for an executive team:

• Shared ownership: Joint responsibility for agency-level tradeoffs and decisions beyond the work of an individual’s department.

• Trust: Psychological safety that enables interpersonal risk taking and confidence that the team will not embarrass or punish someone for speaking up.

• Constructive conflict: Comfort with and encouragement of diverse perspectives and productive disagreement as necessary ingredients to innovation and good decisions.

• Collaboration: Active listening, building on and connecting the ideas of others to solve each other’s problems.

• Accountability: Commitment to team processes, the decisions of the team, and holding each other accountable for expected performance.

• Equity and inclusion: Shared commitment to elevate underrepresented voices, value diversity, and understand and disrupt bias and privilege in the team and its work, and in the organization’s culture.

Once the team has agreed on a set of key behaviors, they hold each other accountable for sticking to them—a process the CEO leads and models. For example, to promote constructive conflict, team members might agree always to generate several meaningful alternatives to ensure they don’t fall into group think. Finally, effective executive teams continue to invest in building personal relationships with each other in and outside of their formal interactions.

Louise Langheier, CEO of Peer Health Exchange (PHE), a health equity nonprofit employing 75 people in five cities, hit reset on the organization’s executive team two years ago after PHE missed its revenue goal and had to lay people off. That crisis was “a real turning point in needing to commit the executive team to delivering results for the organization,” says Langheier.

As a result, she took several corrective steps, starting with redefining the team’s purpose as owning the strategic plan. That meant ensuring strong performance on impact and financial goals, and building an organizational culture more inclusive of people of color. While retaining ultimate ownership for team performance, Langheier assigned Chief Shared Services Officer Robin Rich the task of ensuring that the work of the executive team is accomplished. And she set new expectations for strong interpersonal relationships among team members and clear standards for accountability.

This new clarity of purpose and accountability revealed some latent tensions among team members that needed attention and resolution. Echoing PHE’s culture of care, the team resolved to be each other’s “loving critics,” which meant providing honest and solutions-oriented feedback. Honest feedback included acknowledgement that unconscious bias—reflexive judgments influenced by background and experiences—can affect decision making and dealings with others. With team members both supporting each other and holding each other accountable, PHE is back on track to meet its financial and operational goals. “The highest performing time for us has been the last 21 months,” says Langheier.

Putting Effective Practices Into Action

Only one in four of our survey respondents rated their executive team highly effective. If your team is among the other 75 percent, imagine the productivity boost for your organization, and you personally, if the team were to advance from good to great.

Effective executive teams help CEOs do a better job of leading the organization. But it’s up to the CEO to chart the team’s course and manage its journey. Every executive team success story we’ve seen in our research and client advising work was spearheaded by a proactive CEO.

Just as important, when an executive team is humming, each member benefits. They gain greater visibility across the organization, which informs their own work. And they participate in and learn from rigorous decision-making practices they can then bring to their own part of the organization.

The benefits are clear. Investing in executive teams can pay dividends for organizations and for their impact in communities they serve.


Dive Deeper: Delegating Without Abdicating

CEOs delegate tasks to executive team members for a number of reasons. Delegation frees up time for the CEO to focus on issues outside the realm of the team, helps to groom future leaders, and develops expertise across the team.

Many CEOs seek support in managing team logistics, turning these responsibilities to a deputy, chief of staff, or strong administrative assistant. This role can include gathering input on topics for meeting agendas and processes, ensuring meeting preparation and follow-up happens, and rounding up supporting materials for team discussions. Some CEOs also empower this person to help shape agendas and serve as a thought partner for managing the team’s time.

CEOs with strong team players can distribute leadership across the executive team by assigning individuals as stewards for specific topics central to the team’s work, such as diversity efforts, talent development, communications, or budgeting. For example, a topic steward may be responsible for identifying, in collaboration with the CEO, the critical discussions the team needs to have over the course of the year; setting the agenda and objectives for each discussion; coordinating pre-reads, meeting materials, and discussion plans; and ensuring follow-up. Being a steward does not mean the individual is responsible for all of the content and decisions involved in a particular topic. The steward, however, serves as a single point of accountability for making sure the team engages in the most productive way.

Delegation does not, however, mean abdication. To be effective, the CEO must maintain ultimate decision-making authority over what the executive team focuses on and how it does its work. For any type of delegation to work, CEOs must clearly define the role and decision rights involved, and ensure they have a strong, trusting relationship with their delegates. Successful delegation requires CEOs to invest significant time upfront, but they will more than make this up if they are intentional in creating the right structure and support around delegated duties.

Dive Deeper: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Teams

Executive teams at nonprofit organizations typically don’t represent the diversity of the communities they serve or even of their staff. Among organizations that took our diagnostic, one-third have no people of color on their executive team. Prior surveys by Compass Point and The Meyer Foundation and by Board Source found that fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit CEOs are people of color. Yet researchers have determined that leadership diversity isn’t just important from a representation standpoint. It also contributes to better decisions and stronger outcomes.

The nonprofit leaders we’ve worked with, and the CEOs and leadership coaches we interviewed, are well aware of the need for more diversity on executive teams, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. They described a variety of efforts to increase team diversity and guide their organizations to make equity a core value:

  • Make a strategic commitment to hire, promote, and support people of color. CEOs determined to improve the diversity of their teams and organizations put resources and accountability behind their commitment to equity. This can include setting hard targets for recruiting and retaining people of color and actively tracking and reporting progress, and requiring that a certain percentage of candidates for jobs be people of color. “When executives understand that their performance evaluation is linked to inclusive workplace cultures, you will see a more concerted effort to actually do the hard work,” says Maria Hernandez of InclusionINC.
  • Increase equity competencies in all team members. Having a diverse team is not good enough. Everyone on the executive team needs to take accountability for leading a diverse and equitable organization. This requires helping individuals on the team build their skill and comfort in behaviors like seeking out and valuing diverse perspectives, creating a culture of inclusion, and mitigating bias (explicit and unconscious)  that create barriers for people of color. Trainings on topics like how to counteract unconscious bias can help increase awareness, understanding, and competency on these issues. Training also promotes a culture of vulnerability where team members self-correct when they recognize themselves making unfair judgments and assumptions.
  • Embed equity in executive team decision making. In making decisions, an equity-focused executive team doesn’t necessarily have to achieve consensus. However, it’s important to be transparent about decision-making processes and ensure inclusive input. Make time in discussion to draw out and amplify diverse points of view on the executive team. In weighing options, it’s also important to consider differential impacts of any decision on people of color.

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