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Listen Up, Nonprofit Leaders: We Can Do More

This is the sixth in a
 series of posts that will examine ten insights Community Wealth Partners has uncovered through our research of and experience with initiatives that have created transformational social change. This post is in response to the recent entry ‘Insight #2: Discipline is Key.” This is the first in a two-part series featuring the Connecticut Association of Human Services (CAHS).

Jim Horan was faced with a dilemma. As Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Human Services (CAHS), he had overseen the successful completion of CAHS’ 100th year in operation, and his organization had developed into a leading policy advocate and community leader for Connecticut families in need.

But Jim wanted to do more.

So he asked himself: How can CAHS be sure it’s having impact? How can CAHS get better at serving Connecticut families? And his answer was simple: build an organizational culture where evaluation was at its core.

Through concrete steps, Jim took this vision and slowly turned it into a reality. Some of these steps cost money—for example, he brought on a dedicated internal evaluator, Sheryl Horowitz. But others simply required effort and discipline.

It doesn’t take money to change your organization’s culture. It takes leadership. It takes vision. And above all, it takes discipline. As Amy Celep, CEO of Community Wealth Partners, explains in her recent blog post, discipline is key to any transformational change.

CAHS provides a model for this discipline in action. Jim decided to send his staff a weekly email entitled, “Three Things I Learned this Week,” in which he made sure to include at least one reference to data-driven decision-making or new evaluation efforts. He also empowered Sheryl to integrate more robust data and evaluation expertise into every aspect of the organization’s work, from strategic planning surveys to grant proposals.

Step by step, he was beginning to transform CAHS’ organizational culture.

He pursued this transformation because he believed in a specific theory of change: if you embolden your staff and empower them to build data-driven practices into their everyday work, then this cultural shift will increase the quality and sustain the capacity of evaluation and data work throughout your organization.

But this shift is not easy and it requires time to take hold. Over the course of two years as a dedicated internal evaluator, Sheryl engaged CAHS staff and focused on communicating the reason for this evaluation work—serving Connecticut families better and more efficiently. She wanted to empower the staff and get buy-in across the organization. And now, she has seen a bottom-up change begin to take root right before her eyes.

No longer is it, ‘here’s this chart, go fill it out’” Sheryl says. “Now, [data driven decision-making and learning] comes from everyone.”

Sheryl is now being asked by colleagues to review surveys and grants to make sure strong data components are included, where she wasn’t before. Even in CAHS’ strategic planning process, the team has instituted staff and board surveys for the first time to support this effort with sound data.

This cultural change can be done in any organization, with or without an internal evaluator. What it requires above all else is discipline in incorporating data-driven practices into your organizational culture, and leadership from the top to ensure this cultural shift takes hold.

As Mario Marino told a crowd gathered in a 2011 Urban Institute symposium, his book, Leap of Reason, “is about the importance of strong leaders, leaders like [you], who have the culture and the desire to collect and use information … as the basis for continually improving what you are doing, which I think is at the heart of what a great organization does.”

Jim and his CAHS leadership team have heeded this advice, and it has produced great results for their organization.  As you’ll see in our post next week, these results included receiving over $80,000 in additional funding to develop and build out CAHS’ evaluation capacity.


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About Walter Howell

As an associate, Walter Howell supports strategic client engagements by developing a broad range of solutions for clients through analysis and research, and supporting overall project management. Walter has experience in affordable housing, community development, and microfinance. In addition, he has a passion for youth education and empowerment developed through years of tutoring, youth basketball coaching, and other volunteer efforts. He has researched market opportunities for state-based anti-hunger campaigns, supported community development organizations in sustainability planning and prospectus writing, and led a national non-profit dedicated to childhood health and well-being through a strategic planning process to develop a new transformational bold goal and theory of change. See Walter's full bio

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