This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It’s June, and for millions of high school and college students across the country that means graduation. Hundreds of thousands of the world’s most talented, capable young people are heading out into the world to make their mark. Here in the Bay Area, the birthplace of the startup, creating your own company or organization can feel like the only true measure of success. I’m asking graduates to consider joining something first instead.
More people are committed to being active agents of change at younger ages than ever before. And yet, over the past five years in my quest to answer the question — “Why do some social startups succeed, while others don’t?” — I’ve heard countless stories of students graduating from college and starting organizations with very few tools in their toolkit to handle the challenges that starting an organization inevitably presents.
There’s an endless amount of passion upon graduation, but not a lot of seasoned leadership, fundraising experience, innovation, clear metrics and strong storytelling. As a result, the nonprofit sector, which is already so starved for resources, is wasting time and money while young people learn these lessons on the job.
Carolyn Laub was a recent college grad who had come out as bisexual when she started a support group for LGBTQ teens in the late 1990s. She was inspired by a gay-straight alliance club at Palo Alto High School that was vigorously standing up for LGBTQ students and training their teachers on how to address bullying. Laub realized that to really make a dent in the problem, she’d need to start an organization and build a movement. But she was 23, she hadn’t hired that many people before, let alone fired anyone, and she was lacking the contacts to raise the millions of dollars she’d need to build a nonprofit.
For years, the organization’s growth was hampered by her failure to build a strong upper management team. She worked herself to the bone to launch her organization, but her staff were dropping like flies because they couldn’t keep up with her pace. She grew the organization into a nationwide movement, and although she was a really good fundraiser compared to similar organizations, for the first five years she was operating the Gay-Straight Alliance Network on less than $500,000 per year with just a handful of staff.
This is the story of so many social entrepreneurs, who start their organizations in their 20s and realize very quickly that passion and charisma will only take them so far. The vast majority of nonprofits spend most of their time in survival mode. In fact, two-thirds of nonprofits in this country have $500,000 and below in annual revenue. They are on a treadmill to try to keep their organizations afloat when they should really be focusing on their mission and impact.
Education is changing the situation for the better. Stanford University has quadrupled its community-engaged learning offerings over the past five years, meaning that students are graduating with more skills-based opportunities under their belts. But, in general I believe our educational system is guilty of inspiring agents of social change without giving them the basic skills they need to succeed.
Last year, a junior at Stanford University approached me to ask for help with a nonprofit she wanted to start to help people in the slums of Cape Town, an idea she had hatched as a part of a class project and wanted to apply to launch at the campus pitch competition. When I asked her how often she goes to South Africa, she responded that she had never been but hopes to go one day. By encouraging students like this to start companies and organizations, universities are setting them up for failure, and putting communities at risk.
Seed funding is going to young college grads, often at the expense of community-based leaders who may not have access to Ivy League networks, but do have the lived-experience that makes them arguably more equipped to address the problem. While we all fall prey to the stereotype of the college dropout who founds a billion-dollar “unicorn” startup, research from Aileen Lee at Cowboy Ventures finds that inexperienced, 20-something founders are actually an outlier. In fact, companies with well-educated, 30-something co-founders who have history together have built the most success.
Once Laub invested in a growth strategy and hired seasoned management, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network began to take off within a year. Today it operates a thriving national organization (now called the Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network) with an annual budget of $2.6 million, but it took Laub and the organization’s senior leaders nearly 20 years to reach that level of impact.
After interviewing more than 100 social entrepreneurs about their path to success, I can attest that Laub is one of the smartest, hardest working and creative social entrepreneurs I’ve met. The fact that even she faced such huge challenges as a young person starting an organization is evidence that there is no substitute for life experience.
We should encourage our students to volunteer and work for effective organizations before running with their own ideas. With no shortage of urgent social problems to solve, we must find ways to ground the passion and potential our graduates promise to deliver with practical skills for success. Starting an organization, when nonprofits skilled in best practices desperately need fresh talent, has both a personal cost and a social one.
6/12/2018 2 Comments
This article originally appeared in Medium.
It’s officially been five months since the launch of my first book, Social Startup Success. The last several months have been a whirlwind. I’ve given nearly 50 speeches in 16 cities, recorded over 30 podcasts and written 25 long-form articles, not to mention hosting countless launch parties, Facebook lives and webinars, all while trying to somehow spend time my unconditionally supportive husband and three very patient young children in between. It’s been both exhilarating and exhausting to say the least!
When I first started this book project I thought the writing part would be the hardest. Don’t get me wrong, the writing was hard. But for me the real challenge came in trying to figure out the best way to spread the word about the book, so that I could get all of my amazing best practices research into the hands of the nonprofit organizations that desperately needed it.
Like any researcher, when it came time to launch the book, I asked all of the smartest authors I knew about their experiences with book marketing. I quickly learned that there is no single answer to every author’s biggest question: “What sells a book?” This is partly because media and marketing are changing at such a fast pace, and also because every book’s target audience is slightly different and will resonate with a different approach. Each author needs to figure out what outreach strategies will maximize their particular message so that they can reach as many people as possible.
In the spirit of sharing the wealth of knowledge that I’ve learned over the past year about what has been successful in spreading the word about my book, I wanted to share what I wish I had known in the six months leading up to my book launch. The following is a list of the various strategies that I used to market Social Startup Success, in no particular order:
There you have it! My most important advice is that launching a book is a marathon and not a sprint, so if you don’t have time to focus on all of these strategies, pick two or three and run with them. You can always come back to the rest later. After all, if you’ve written a great book that stands the test of time, you will have plenty of time to get it into readers’ hands.
This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.
Far too many great ideas for solving pressing social problems are not being applied at the scale they deserve, because thousands of nonprofit organizations are teetering on the brink of collapse. Of the 300,000 nonprofits in the United States, two-thirds have an annual budget of $500,000 or below, which does not allow them to expand their operations or scale their solutions. Fundraising is by far the biggest challenge for the sector, even for the most successful organizations. In a survey I conducted of the leaders of over 200 top-performing social entrepreneurships, 81% of them identified access to capital as their most serious concern. If an organization can’t reach sustainability, which I define as reliably raising around $2 million in annual revenue, the chances are high that it will eventually stagnate or fold.
I wanted to know, what are the organizations that break through the $2 million barrier doing right? Is there some secret recipe for fundraising success? As I delved into the stories of the success and failure of a host of organizations, I discovered the answer is yes and no. I also found that the conventional wisdom about fundraising is largely off base.
The traditional advice is that organizations should diversify their funding sources, aiming for a roughly even mix of foundational and individual donors, government grants, and earned revenue. Such a portfolio management approach would seem to mitigate the risk of relying too heavily on one or another major source. But while that seems eminently logical, research shows that it’s not the approach of the most successful organizations.
William Foster and his team at The Bridgespan Group conducted a study that revealed that, of the 144 nonprofit organizations created since 1970 that have grown in size to $50 million a year or more, each has relied particularly heavily on one particular source: something Foster and his coauthors call the “natural match.” For example, the Sierra Club relies primarily on membership fees, while Susan G. Komen has concentrated its fundraising intensively on its race events. The organizations that succeed typically don’t begin to narrow their focus to a dominant funding source until they’ve grown to about $3 million in annual revenue. In the period leading up to that point, they test a range of fundraising approaches, not following preconceived formulas.
To learn more about how successful leaders engaged in this experimentation, I interviewed over 100 of them, and I found again and again that they had shown great flexibility and creativity as they tested a wide range of ideas. I also found that they were so open to discovery that they were willing to significantly alter their whole business model if that seemed advisable.
Consider the case of Hot Bread Kitchen, a training program for low-income women who want to work in the food industry in New York City. Chasing a dream of many social entrepreneurs eager to get off the fundraising treadmill, founder Jessamyn Rodriguez initially believed the organization could become self-funded by earning income from sales of its bread. She tested a variety of approaches, from sales at an on-site café to impressive larger-scale arrangements, such as selling to JetBlue and Whole Foods. When those sales weren’t adequate, she realized she needed a hybrid model that would rely partly on earned income and partly on philanthropic sources.
By being receptive to foundation support, Rodriguez not only achieved financial stability but also gained vital wisdom about developing her services. “I realized that there is actually a huge benefit that comes from philanthropic funding,” she told me, “because it allows us to do more for the women we serve.” She was able, for example, to add child care during the cooking classes. As of now, Hot Bread Kitchen is bringing in about 65% of its income from earned sources and 35% from foundations and individual donors, and Rodriguez and her team continue to test sources, such as government partnerships, in pursuit of an optimal model.
Prototyping Isn’t Only for ProductsIn their funding experimentation, many organization leaders are following the human-centered design process of conducting research with end users and then rapidly testing simple, low-cost prototypes. With fundraising, this involves research with donors in place of end users. That could start small, with even a couple of current donors, asking for no-holds-barred feedback about existing efforts and new ideas to try. Small-scale launches of recommended approaches can then be tested.
When Alejandro Gac-Artigas decided he wanted to create an organization devoted to increasing literacy rates among low-income kids by training their parents to better support them, he had no idea how he was going to pay for the program. He threw himself into researching possibilities, including calling as many superintendents and principals as he could to see how much they might be willing to pay for such a service. A number responded that they would be interested if he could prove that students’ reading improved as a result of his program. To make the case, he launched a pilot program at a single school. The results were impressive, and Springboard Collaborative now runs training classes nationwide, with the bulk of its $7 million annual budget coming from fees paid by schools.
Another founder who followed the method is Beth Schmidt, a former teacher who started Wishbone, a crowdfunding site that provides money for low-income high school students to pursue a career passion through a summer experience such as a camp or workshop. She didn’t start fundraising by launching an expensive website. Instead, she simply photocopied some of the top essays her students had written about their career dreams and sent those essays to her family and friends, asking for donations. She received thousands of dollars and realized that she was onto something. Only then did she begin the process of launching a formal platform.
In both of those cases, experimentation quickly helped to focus on an optimal solution, but often many disappointing, and costly, surprises appear. Take the example of an organization I cofounded, Spark, which engages Millennials in new forms of philanthropy to support gender equality. Early on, we invested significant resources in soliciting corporate sponsorships, developing a pitch package, working with our members to develop relationships with their companies’ foundations. After a couple of years of failed efforts, we realized that corporate sponsorships weren’t optimal for our organization’s model, and we doubled down on raising money from our members, who happily supported Spark’s work.
Interviewing donors and performing quick, inexpensive test runs goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom of fundraising, with its emphasis on highly polished media campaigns. But the new generation of social innovators is showing that experimentation rather than formulaic diversification is the best route to mitigating risk in developing a funding stream.
In this new interconnected world where hashtags have the power to spark movements overnight, social entrepreneurs often ask me things like “how can I get my cause to go viral?” or “how can we use social media to advocate policy change?” I have good news: there is a new playbook that will walk you through the answers to all of these questions and more!
In their new book, New Power: How Movements Build, Businesses Thrive, and Ideas Catch Fire in Our Hyperconnected World, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms help us all decipher new forms of power that democratize and equalize our capacity to create social change in the era of #blacklivesmatter and #metoo. Drawing on their deep experience developing online movements that have themselves caught fire (Heimans as the CEO of Purpose, a company that builds and supports social movements, and Timms as the co-founder of #GivingTuesday, an international day of philanthropy), the authors argue that new power can be both for good (crowd-sourced drug trials, fast-growing movements in the name of love and compassion) or for bad (ISIS or white-supremacists) and the choice is in our hands to ensure that we use these tools in a way that makes our world better.
New Power is a lively and engaging read that masterfully uses stories of social entrepreneurs, businesses and individual people to inspire readers to do more to spread ideas, lead movements, build careers or transform organizations. But Heimans and Timms don’t stop with the stories. They give readers a clear and easy-to-use 5-step framework that anyone can leverage for good: 1. Find your connected connectors, 2. Build a new power brand, 3. Lower the barriers, 4. Move people up the participation scale, 5. Harnessing the three storms.
As I have seen in my research for Social Startup Success, two-thirds of nonprofits in the United States are $500K and below in revenue, with so much grassroots potential to harness new power to support their causes. But as Heimans and Timms describe, they can’t do it without things like shifting their leadership approaches to allow for more open participation, and a deep understanding of how to leverage broader support. I’m so excited to share this amazing new playbook with all of my favorite social entrepreneur leaders so they too can maximize their potential for impact and turn hashtags into real social change!
This article originally appeared in Echoing Green.
Over the past five years, I have traveled the country talking with top-performing social entrepreneurs to learn about the secrets of successfully scaling an organization, as well as the leading causes of failure. When I asked over 250 nonprofit leaders to describe their biggest mistake, by far the most prevalent answer was hiring the wrong people. In interview after interview, they told me they’d had no clue how to make hiring decisions.
The costs are staggering. Research shows that the average cost of a single bad hire for a nonprofit is tens of thousands of dollars.
As business management guru Jim Collins wrote in "Good to Great", the first step in organizational success is “getting the right people on the bus.” But how? The successful leaders I interviewed shared these five vital lessons they learned:
1. Map out a multi-year hiring strategy.
Use your strategic growth plan to carefully consider your personnel needs not only in the present, or the next six months, but for several years to come. This gives you lead time to identify superior talent and assure you have the right skills at the right time.
2. Hire senior leadership early.
The organizations I studied that scaled the fastest hired senior leadership personnel, such as a chief financial officer or director of technology, at an earlier stage of growth than most other organizations. Too many leaders think this is putting the cart before the horse, when, in fact, this frees up a leader’s time to focus more on fundraising and strategic planning, and that propels faster growth.
3. Test skills in action.
Rather than relying only on interviewing, ask candidates to produce some work, such as a proposal for a fundraising strategy, or to make a presentation to your management team, which allows you not only to evaluate the actual quality of their work, but to tap the expertise of your team in making the decision.
4. Ask a key "culture add" question.
A good fit involves not only skills but whether a candidate will thrive within your culture. Take the time to define the underpinning values that make your organization tick. It is a good exercise to understand your culture, and when it comes time to hire, you can see what a candidate brings that can add to and continue to shape your organization. Many leaders I interviewed told me they always ask a particular question that helps them evaluate what their candidates value. For example, Kiva, the crowdfunding platform for global microenterprises, asks every employee “how many bad days a year do you have,” to sort through candidates who tend to be optimistic. Kiva has a very positive work environment, so they want employees who show up to work happy.
5. Fire quickly.
Mistakes are inevitable. You must recognize them and correct for them with alacrity. This is a hard truth for many nonprofit leaders, who tend to think of their staff as family. But keep in mind that when people are not performing well, they are usually relieved to move on, and poor performers put an undue burden on the rest of your team, who must compensate for their shortfalls. Quick action makes the outcome less painful for everyone.
Great organizations are comprised of great teams. The more astute a hirer you become, the more remarkable team you will build, and a great team can exceed even your greatest ambitions.
4/12/2018 0 Comments
This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Blaring news headlines about a developing trade war between the governments of the United States and China lie in sharp contrast to the emerging partnerships developing between philanthropists and social entrepreneurs from the two countries. As I learned while on a recent delegation from Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) to Beijing there are far more similarities than differences when it comes to how American and Chinese civil society actors are helping solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
On March 27-28, Stanford PACS co-hosted its seventh annual conference at the Stanford Center at Peking University with the Leping Foundation—one of the largest funders of social entrepreneurs and a leader of philanthropic education in China—bringing together an audience of more than 200 Chinese philanthropists, nonprofit and social enterprise leaders, students and academics, to hear from Chinese and American experts about challenges and opportunities in the field. The following are some of the most prominent trends that emerged from our two days together:
1. New wealth and a new Chinese charity law are powering a new wave of philanthropy in China. With the number of Chinese billionaires soaring from three in 2004 to 568 in 2016, and with 8 percent of the world’s super-high-net-worth individuals (those with more than $50 million in assets), these new Chinese millionaires and billionaires are using philanthropy to try to help solve China’s social ills, such as poor rural education and an aging population. China’s first-ever charity law passed in 2016 has made philanthropic giving easier, unleashing large philanthropic gifts, such as Alibaba Group co-founder Jack Ma’s $44 million gift to public hospitals in China. In particular, many young people in their 20’s and early-30’s from wealthy Chinese families have a strong sense of the importance of giving back and are building and leading family foundations.
2. Philanthropists in both the United States and China want to give more than just money.Donors in both countries seek opportunities to enhance their financial contributions with donations of time, skills, and access to their networks. For example, Social Venture Partners—an organization that connects professionals with opportunities to use their professional skills to support nonprofits and social enterprises—has been thriving in both the United States and China over the past decade. This trend toward giving more than just money is an opportunity to harness even more resources for the greater good.
3. Funders must invest in capacity building for nonprofit and social enterprise leaders.Another common thread between the United States and China’s nonprofit sectors is that they are starved for resources and talent. Both countries face the challenge that nonprofit staff are severely underpaid, thus making it hard to recruit high-quality employees. In the United States for example, only 20 percent of funding is unrestricted, which means nonprofit and social enterprise leaders are unable to invest in building capacity and are starved for basic skills such as management training, fundraising knowledge, and strategic planning support. To combat this challenge, as Jennifer Wei, organizational effectiveness officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation taught in her workshop, it is critical that foundations lead the way in funding nonprofit capacity building.
4. China has an opportunity to create a vigorous social enterprise sector. Whereas historically the United States has strongly entrenched boundaries between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, because philanthropy is still nascent in China, there is an immense opportunity to blur the lines between business and social good. As a result, there is a growing social enterprise movement in China, with a wave of new social businesses emerging, such as First Respond—a B Corporation empowering local citizens with life-saving skills like CPR—and Kiaterra, a startup focused on monitoring and mapping the world’s air using data from an air quality monitor they sell for home-use.
5. A collectivist model of philanthropy is flourishing in China. Finally, as Harvard Kennedy School visiting professor Christopher Marquis noted in presenting his research, networked models of philanthropy continue to thrive in China. Unlike in the United States where wealthy individuals often create a private foundation with their name on it and take full control over distribution of the assets, in China funders often collaborate with colleagues and friends to pool resources for good. This approach is one that US philanthropists could learn from their Chinese peers.
Indeed, the path toward creating a culture of philanthropy in China isn’t lined with roses. Philanthropic giving and nonprofit activities are still heavily monitored by the government, undoubtedly having a chilling effect on initiatives that could be perceived as misaligned with or critical of the government, such as human rights. But the passion and energy of those who participated in the Beijing conference is evidence of growing leadership in the field of philanthropy in China, and the potential for cross-border bridges between philanthropic communities so that we can all maximize the potential of our philanthropic initiatives.
This article originally appeared in Medium.
This week, kids and families across the country are preparing for the March for Our Lives, an unprecedented protest to end to gun violence and mass shootings in schools inspired by the incredible advocacy of the students of Stoneman Douglas High School. Although we have witnessed dozens of mass shootings at schools over the past decades, none of these tragedies have resulted in policy change. Experts are saying that this moment feels different. So what is it about the Parkland students that so quickly turned tears, prayers and passion into real change?
People around the world have marveled at how “well-spoken” and “eloquent” these impressive young people have been in standing up to Congressmen, and advocating on major news networks. They are the country’s most glimmering example of a silver lining during a turbulent political climate and the aftermath of one of our country’s most tragic school shootings in history. But, the fact that these students are compelling and poised spokespeople is no coincidence. Their teachers have been preparing them to be effective advocates for years.
Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, appear on CNN.According to Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, the district’s system-wide debate program teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age. All of the Broward County middle schools, and even some of their elementary schools, have a debate program. Students learn how to argue both sides of an issue, digest differing viewpoints and plead their case. And it’s working.
David Hogg, the Stoneman Douglas student who appeared on nearly every major news network in the aftermath of the February 14th shooting, credits the debate program — which he joined on a whim — with preparing him to speak about current events. In fact, just last year the students debated gun violence in their class, and with no time to prepare new arguments Hogg actually relied on his class research to prepare for media interviews.
Imagine a world where all young people got this kind of training to be advocates for the causes that they care about. As Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka often called the godfather of social entrepreneurship, is so fond of saying, we must be educating young people with the skills – like figuring out ways to solve a problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and continually adapt as situations change – to make “everyone a changemaker.” To do that, Drayton says that we have to start young, to instill ownership over problem solving for life.
It’s not just students who need to be educated. It’s all of us. Five years ago I set out on a mission to understand one question, “Why do some social ventures succeed and scale, while others don’t?” I poured over thousands of survey results and conducted hundreds of interviews with some of the top changemakers in the country.
I kept expecting people to tell me that success is driven by a truly remarkable idea, or by the charisma of the founder, but no one did. Not one. This isn’t to say that factors like charisma, and grit, along with a brilliant idea, don’t contribute significantly to success.
But, what I found was that the strategies behind successful social change initiatives — like fundraising, measuring impact and storytelling — are teachable. The problem is that we’re not teaching them. As a result, social change organizations are wasting time and valuable resources learning these lessons on the job when they could be making so much more impact in our communities.
As a country, our instinct is to take action when crisis hits — that’s part of what makes America great. But what if we refused to wait for the next tragedy and chose to do a better job of educating people instead? What if like the students from Parkland, we leveraged our preparation and the power of our own lived experience to stand up and change the world?
There is no shortage of big problems to solve. We can wait and hope for a sea of courageous voices to emerge, or we can get up and begin educating the next generation of changemakers.
This piece originally appeared in Medium as a guest post for +Acumen.
You may have heard of the phrase “human-centered design,” an idea swarming Silicon Valley, and often the origin of some of our favorite tech and social products. But what is it, exactly, and what does it mean to the success of your nonprofit? Simply put, human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that starts with the people you’re designing for, and ends with new solutions that are tailored to suit their needs. Seems simple enough, right?
While conducting research for Social Startup Success, I saw a consistent theme in my interviews with breakthrough social entrepreneurs: many had used this innovation practice to develop their models for products or services, and put them to the test before going out to raise capital and seek press coverage. With testing underway, the social startups were able to develop more effective programs and products, and, at the same time, craft a persuasive story about how they had arrived at these models.
If you’re thinking about incorporating human-centered design into your testing process, you might give these methods a try.
Get out from behind your desk.
To stay innovative, it’s essential to stay inspired. Get out and build strong connections with the end-users in order to build a better understanding of their needs. Host focus groups or surveys, ask the right questions (how can you help your beneficiaries, not how they can help you), and observe the nature of life by conducting in-person interviews to understand the problems they face.
Think of design as a team sport.
Once you’ve conducted interviews, discuss key findings with your team, and perhaps with a range of stakeholders and outside advisors. Hold a session where you invite others to discuss the problem. All ideas are welcomed and encouraged, and none should be shot down during the brainstorming session. Take a note from Silicon Valley and consider scribbling thoughts on brightly colored post-it notes, then sticking them on a whiteboard, poster, or wall.
Create a rough prototype.
You’ve researched, brainstormed, now it’s time to put your ideas to the test. This step should be a very simple and inexpensive representation of the product, or how the service will work, such as a sketch describing a product, or a storyboard showing how a service would operate. Gain valuable feedback, refine, and get ready to launch a pilot program to really test results.
This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
During a five-year research project I conducted about what makes organizations successful, I learned a shocking statistic: While 75 percent of nonprofits collect data, only 6 percent feel they are using it effectively. To me, this means that while there is a data feeding frenzy happening in the nonprofit sector, the vast majority of nonprofits have failed to develop a data culture—that is, a deep, organization-wide comfort level with using metrics to maximize social impact.
Although many organizations don’t feel like their organizations are making good use of their data, creating a data culture is critical to their success. Actively and consistently using data to inform decisions allows nonprofits to track whether their programs are resulting in the outcomes they intend. In fact, in my survey of 250 social entrepreneurs, organizations that began measuring their impact from the start tended to have a faster path to scale.
These organizations were scaling faster because they had the data to prove that what they were doing was working. The data wasn’t just about donors. These leaders wanted to know that what they were doing was actually having a positive impact on their beneficiaries. I’ll never forget Tess Reynolds from New Door Ventures telling me, “It is really hard to raise a million dollars. If I am going to work hard to get that money, I need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we’re doing works.”
But as indicated by the 6 percent number, it’s really hard for most nonprofits to make good use of their data, because most nonprofit leaders are not data scientists—they get into the work because they care about the cause. The good news is that you don’t have to be a data scientist to tell a good data story. All organizations have the capacity to create a data culture, no matter how big or small, or data savvy or not, they are. Organizations can improve their data cultures in at least four ways:
1. Be clear about outputs vs. outcomes. One of the most important lessons I learned in my research is that organizations must do a better job of distinguishing between outputs (how many people are participating in their programs) and outcomes (how their programs are actually changing lives for the better). When Rey Faustino started One Degree, a Yelp-like platform for social services in the San Francisco Bay Area, his organization was thrilled to be able to show that a year after launching, 40,000 people had visited the site. But quickly he realized that this was just a “vanity metric.” It wasn’t really a measure of how many people the organization was helping to get social services, let alone how their lives were improving because of access to those services. One Degree had to shift its measurement systems to move past tracking outputs (such as what types of services visitors searched for and whether they downloaded an application to receive government benefits) to tracking longer-term outcomes (such as whether they were actually accessing benefits, their experience with them, and how their lives improved as a result). Now it tracks the data even farther down the pipeline, and personalizes the user experience on the site to keep track of how their clients benefit from their services.
2. Get creative about metrics. If organizations want to uncover true indications of whether their programs are making a difference, they need to get creative about how they measure. Row New York is an organization that pairs rigorous athletic training with tutoring and other academic support to empower youth from under-resourced communities. To develop this model, it drew on extensive educational psychology research about how “grit” contributes substantially to success in school and life. Like so many others, when it started out, Row tracked things like number of participants, growth, and fitness levels. But success wasn’t just about kids showing up; Row needed to show that the program was influencing their rowers’ lives. Eventually, Founder Amanda Kraus came up with inventive measures of success. By tracking both attendance and daily weather conditions, the organization was able to show which students were still showing up to row even when it was 38 degrees and pouring rain. Those indicators of grit tracked with students who were demonstrating academic and life success, proving that their intervention was improving those students’ outcomes.
3. Measure in a mission-driven way. For some organizations, staying true to your mission may mean recognizing the limitations of our data-hungry nonprofit sector. Rob Gitin of At The Crossroads, an organization that serves homeless youth in San Francisco, knew he needed data to measure his organization’s progress, but because he was serving hard-to-reach youth (who sometimes require more 200 encounters with an outreach worker before they will engage with the organization), his data wasn’t going to look as impressive as organizations that were taking on the “easier” cases. He also didn’t want to fall prey to tracking someone else’s definition of success, such as helping a kid find housing, when what they really wanted was to get clean. But he still needed to figure out whether their interventions were working, and after many agonizing, late-night conversations with his team, At The Crossroads broke down its model into a clear set of achievement phases. This allowed the organization to work with each youth to set their own unique goals, while also tracking a consistent set of metrics.
4. Be honest with data. If organizations are going to collect data, they also need to be ready to be honest about what that data is telling them. The organizations I interviewed who were building strong data cultures couldn’t afford multimillion-dollar randomized control trials, but that didn’t stop them from applying the strictest standards against their data to pressure test it. For example, Braven, an organization that helps low-income college students graduate and get jobs, paid an informal control group of students who were not in their program with Amazon gift cards to compare their performance with the ones in the program. In other words, Braven wasn’t just satisfied with improving students’ assessments; it wanted to test the counterfactual to ensure that its students were performing better than they would have had they not participated in the program. Pressure-testing your data to ensure that positive results are actually connected to your programming, versus other factors, is critical to being honest with your data.
Ultimately, for organizations to get the most out of their data, they need funders to support data-driven cultures through unrestricted grants that pay for impact measurement; capacity-building support to help develop better systems for tracking data; and the patient, long-term capital that organizations need to ensure that they can be honest with their data without worrying that their funding will get pulled if it doesn’t tell them what they want to see.
Some of the most important practices of successful startups can’t be measured—things like believing in people and building trusting relationships. But figuring out what we can measure and measuring it effectively is essential to the success of organizations that want to achieve impact.
This piece originally appeared on StartupNation.
You’ve heard it before and you’ll surely hear it again: “What is your elevator pitch?” Compressing passion, data and complicated work into a few key points is no small feat, but it’s necessary for introducing your startup and approaching potential investors.
Whatever stage your organization may be in, always be prepared to strike up a conversation. If you’re looking for tips, read on to learn how to craft and deliver an award-winning elevator pitch.
Pitching is a very necessary part of scaling your startup or small business. Rather than dreading the process, view it as an opportunity to share your passion and talk about your business with even more people! So go ahead, craft your pitch, practice and get out there to make this your organization’s best year yet.