By Will DeKrey
Every year, the Independent Sector conference brings together leaders from some of the most well-known nonprofits and foundations. The conference serves as a gathering-place to explore new ideas emerging across the social sector and to reflect on our collective efforts. This year, two themes continued to pop-up for me across conversations and sessions: (1) holding ourselves and others accountable to outcomes and (2) reinvigorating our work with “matter-ness.”
1. It’s about outcomes. Not good intentions or valiant effort.
In conversations ranging from organizational strategy to team management, speakers stressed the power of holding oneself and others accountable to concrete outcomes. Kenneth Chenault (CEO, American Express) and Geoffrey Canada (CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone) reflected on the importance of caring about rigorous performance management. They remarked that because the work of the social sector has direct and profound effects on people’s lives, social sector leaders have an even stronger mandate than private sector colleagues to drive their staff towards exemplary performance. The vulnerable populations we serve deserve our best and nothing less.
Chenault and Canada emphasized that effective performance management does not focus on intention or effort — it is not enough to have good intentions and/or demonstrate tremendous efforts. What matters, rather, are the outcomes you are able to produce.
This leadership advice paralleled Kate Markin Coleman’s (EVP, YMCA) description of the relationship between the national YMCA and its network of local chapters. Instead of assuming that a perfect program model exists and that each local chapter should follow such a model without any room for variance, the YMCA sets and holds local chapters accountable to specific outcomes. The national Y certainly identifies and shares best practices — ensuring that local chapters understand what has worked elsewhere in the network — but they avoid being so prescriptive as to stifle local innovation.
Mirroring the wisdom of Chenault and Canada, the YMCA has found that diligently holding its chapters accountable to outcomes instead of specific activities produces better results in the communities touched by its network. Similarly, our insights on social transformation highlight that solving social problems at the magnitude they exist involves balancing a disciplined focus on bold goals while creating the space for experimentation, failure and learning.
2. We cannot let a focus on outcomes obscure the value of individuals – each of whom matter deeply to our work.
As we push towards setting and holding ourselves accountable to outcomes, we cannot lose sight of the individuals through whom social change is realized — both those who affect and are affected by social problems.
Allison Fine (Senior Fellow, Demos) made a powerful case to reinvigorate our work with “matter-ness”— ensuring that we authentically demonstrate to our colleagues and our stakeholders that they are special and they matter. In pursuing bold goals and holding ourselves accountable to clear outcomes, it can be all too easy to dehumanize our colleagues and our partners into cogs in our grand social change strategies. To ensure we are being strategic in our efforts, we “segment” our stakeholders into “buckets” and conduct environmental analysis to identify the demographic trends influencing our constituents. Such analytic efforts are critical to helping change agents plan and prioritize, but they can also obscure the individuals who underlie these buckets and trends.
A number of speakers highlighted how components of matter-ness — like trust, authenticity, and deep engagement — influence the success of their efforts:
- Henry Timms (Deputy ED, 92Y) – who helped orchestrate #givingtuesday – pushed change agents to move past “feedback loops” focused on evaluating programs or soliciting input; he urged leaders to also build “feed-in loops” in which stakeholders are authentic partners in building new programs, campaigns, etc.
- Stacey Stewart (U.S. President, United Way Worldwide) commented that trust is a critical measure in the strength of their network. The trust that local United Ways have for the national umbrella, as well as the trust that they have for one another determines how well the network is able to collectively realize positive impact in communities. Such trust arises from intimate relationships between staff in the network.
- La June Montgomery Tabron (COO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation) posited that effective partnerships and collective impact efforts require strong, trusting relationships at their core. She suggested that before change agents can share assets and establish common goals, they must build collective trust.
These recurring ideas on the significance of matter-ness underscored, for me, the humanity and authenticity inherent in Community Wealth Partners’ thinking around practices like sharing leadership and living in the market.
As we tackle social problems at the magnitude they exist, we must define clearly what success looks like for our organizations and for our individual daily work — pushing beyond intentions and effort towards outcomes and impact. But we must not let the sometimes abstract talk of outcomes allow us to lose sight of the people with whom and for whom we work. Relationships are at the core of social change, and building authentic relationships cannot be fast-tracked through technology, nor can it be rapidly scaled. We must continue to push ourselves toward bold goals while also embracing “matter-ness”.