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Field Notes

Performance Insights: My Vision for the Next 10 Years

Andrew Wolk
October 15, 2013

It has been 15 months since my last blog post, more than three years since I joined many of my colleagues at the White House for the launch of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and close to 10 years since I founded Root Cause. As I reflect back on all that I have seen, experienced and learned, I wanted to share three insights that I hope will guide Root Cause along with other organizations seeking to improve peoples’ lives over the next decade.

Not all Nonprofits and Funders are Alike 

There are nearly 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the U.S., including 98,000 foundations, and countless government programs and institutions. How many of them have as part of their specific purpose producing an outcome that will improve lives? We have been clumping all of these activities together, and I believe we need to organize them more clearly, along with the investments being made that are specifically focused on making progress on social issues. An example of this is how a college access program, an art museum, and even churches and sports teams are all classified as charitable, tax-exempt organizations by the IRS, with few ways to differentiate. If we are serious about making progress on the issues we all care about, such as providing equal access to quality education, housing and employment, then we should organize these activities and investments in a more succinct way to better coordinate and align our work.

Put Aside Theories and Jargon

Since its founding in 2004, Root Cause’s vision has been for the three sectors to work together allocating resources based on performance to advance social progress. This approach – aligning the activities of the non-profit, government and business communities – is no longer new; in fact cross-sector work is in. But what I am seeing is that while we want to break down siloes – barriers that keep us from achieving seamless collaboration – we need to also break down our own commitments to theories and jargon. Root Cause has certainly had its fair share, including, “Social Innovation will solve everything,” and “We need a social impact market.” Instead of our own theories and jargon, let’s align ourselves around a limited set of outcomes. It actually could be rather simple – we could consider a dashboard that includes a limited set of measures such as school readiness, third grade reading proficiency, high school graduation, college completion and employment. There is no doubt the hard part is identifying, agreeing and spreading the policies and practices that advance these outcomes, but at least we will all rowing in the same direction.

Performance is Broader than Just Outcomes

Since our founding, we have been on a pursuit for resources to be allocated based on performance. There is no doubt, as stated above, that ultimately we want to see outcomes. But are we too focused on just this goal? Measuring outcomes, as we know, takes a long time and can often be expensive. Imagine if the activities and investments that are focused on improving people’s lives all just performed a bit better each year – what that would collectively look like. Focusing on such things as improving the practices we use in service delivery, the tactics we use to advocate for policy change, and our grant-making processes could have a dramatic impact. In order to see the change we all aspire to, we should commit to assessing our performance on a consistent basis and continuously seeking to improve our performance. If we all perform better, ultimately, we should see better outcomes. I recently returned from CityLab, hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Aspen Institute and Atlantic Magazine, inspired by the hundreds of people that were all committed to getting clearer about what we are trying to achieve. As Root Cause enters its tenth year, I am hopeful that in our next 10 years we will see the kind of measurable progress we all are working towards.

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