Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason
In his new book Leap of Reason, Mario Morino argues that most nonprofits don’t effectively manage to outcomes; that is, they don’t measure and optimize their ability to meet the mission. When I first glanced at the book, its message seemed so obvious to me that it hardly needed to be said. Of course nonprofits measure their impact, right? But as I delved further into it, I realized that what Mario is proposing is actually a fundamental shift that touches on all corners of the nonprofit world.
I recently spoke with Mario and he told me about the steps that led him to Leap of Reason. Mario’s background is in technology and the corporate sector. As his focus turned to philanthropy, he was struck by the idea that the for-profit and nonprofit sectors had a gaping blind spot in common: they weren’t measuring the right things.
In 2000, Mario co-founded Venture Philanthropy Partners, which provides grants as well as technical and strategic support to nonprofits serving children in the Washington, D.C., area. “Early on in the nonprofit work,” he told me, “I saw the importance of a disciplined management structure for an organization. I saw why rigor was important, and why information was important to how one runs an organization. That's always been the thread of almost everything I've done, going all the way back to the corporate world."
But he’s the first to caution that information for information’s sake is worthless or even harmful: “One of the big mistakes that people make is that they go to the data that’s available, rather than the data that’s needed. By definition, they’ve already suboptimized or even ruined the system.” In the book, he points to the No Child Left Behind Act as the archetypal example of “metrics over mission.” He suggests that NCLB favors standardized test scores not because they’re the best indicator of a child’s success, but because they’re the easiest to measure.
"Yes, it’s very important to achieve — and measure — core competencies like reading and math. But where are the incentives for schools to educate young people to be curious, engaged citizens capable of critical thinking and problem solving? Where are the incentives to encourage collaborative learning? Where are the incentives to nurture students’ social-psychological development? Where are the incentives to give students practical experience in the ways of life outside of school?"
In stark contrast to NCLB, Mario examines Harlem Children’s Zone, the nonprofit network of preschools and charter schools made famous by the film Waiting for Superman. Harlem Children’s Zone also uses a single metric to judge and optimize for its own success, but instead of standardized test scores, that metric is college graduation. It’s easy to spot the differences: test scores are extremely easy to measure, but their correlation with success outside of school is debatable. College graduation levels take much longer to measure, but the mission alignment is obvious.
Mario suggests that like Harlem Children’s Zone, every nonprofit should seek out the measurements that denote its success at achieving its mission. “What you want to do is say, ‘If this is my outcome, what will best tell me that I’m there or that I’m getting there?’ If you think that process through, now you know what you're looking for. Now you can start putting numbers around those things.”
With a deeper understanding of the outcomes your organization is managing toward, might new possibilities also open for collaboration among like-minded organizations? Mario told me about youthCONNECT, VPP’s new project to unite organizations working with youth in the Washington, D.C., area. By sharing a set of common outcomes, the organizations involved will be able to track their progress as a team, rather than only looking at their own individual data. “What you’re seeing is several efforts in the field today where people with expertise in a certain part of the equation are coming together to agree on a common outcome framework.”
Mario’s excitement about youthCONNECT and similar projects reminded me of one of my favorite passages from the book, about his own childhood in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland:
"My friends and I benefited from a wide range of holistic services delivered by caring adults — from family to teachers to coaches and neighbors — who simply wouldn’t let us fail. Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but we were the focus of a reasonably well-coordinated network of providers that collectively produced an impact greater than the sum of good individual parts."
As nonprofits find new ways to share data with each other in aid of shared goals, more communities of practice like the one Mario describes will emerge. With new technologies in collaboration and data-sharing, it’s possible for those communities to transcend geography while maintaining that same sense of commitment and shared responsibility. But before that sort of change can take place, Mario says, it’s essential for organizations to think critically about the goals they’re working toward: “If you don't take steps to look at the clarity of the mission, the clarity of your goals, and the clarity of how you do your programs, metrics aren't going to do a thing for you.”