One of StriveTogether’s great mentors and coaches, Jolie Bain Pillsbury, once had a brilliant insight about our work after engaging with a cohort of communities. She said, “I finally get it — you are trying to create a marketplace for results.”
After much reflection, this is a great way to sum up what we do. We have realized in our work with communities that the way we make decision in the social sector is largely irrational. Data is used to highlight problems but rarely to inform decisions, especially of investors. New programs and initiatives are launched in a stream of innovation, which can be very good. The problem is that when we find something that works, it can be hard to find resources — public or private — to spread and sustain the work. So we turn our attention to the next new idea.
To help understand how we might be able to better create this marketplace, we recently convened 15 investors from across the country at the national, state and local levels who are engaged in building cradle-to-career partnerships. The desired result is threefold:
- build the capability of the investors to model results-oriented action;
- test new ways for them to operate that contribute to results at scale; and
- learn lessons to inform the broader field about the role of philanthropy in this complex work.
First, the investors engaged in this cohort are courageous. There are some clear risks for investors in putting results at the center of their work. In addition to raising the sense of accountability, they are one step removed from the actual delivery of services, so there is less of a direct connection to the result. This brings some sense of risk. But they are diving in regardless as they recognize the critical role they play in this complex ecosystem. The bottom line: If we are going to create a marketplace for results in the social sector where outcomes matter more than inputs, we need more philanthropists to join them in this effort.
But my one primary takeaway was both simple and surprising to me: The role of an investor in community-based work to achieve results at scale is much harder than I thought. And that is saying something, given I have worn the hat before and even dabble in it now through the Accelerator Fund. So what triggered this insight? It was a discussion we had about the challenge investors have in clarifying the role they play in achieving results at scale. The good news is the investors recognized they play many roles: funder, advocate, convener, thought partner, to name a few. But no matter how much they try to enter any discussion on equal footing and even name the role they are playing other than funder, they are still seen as “Daddy Warbucks” from the Broadway show “Annie.”
There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the mental model of “philanthropy as charity” is still pervasive. They are not seen as investors who are full partners in the work to achieve results, but check writers who should “do the right thing.” There is also the general sense and reality of resource scarcity and completion in the nonprofit sector. It is hard for those looking to implement work on the ground to take risks in authentically partnering, because they can never be sure how any problems they uncover could be perceived or communicated to others. Finally, there is just the reality of privilege in relationships around money. As the old adage says, s/he who has the gold rules.
This brings us back to the need for a marketplace for results. We need some ground rules for creating a more rational decision-making process. We need data on the impact of programs to be first on this list and we need to be sure capacity exists in the community to not just access the data, but use it in productive ways. But equally important, we need a critical mass of investors to agree on these ground rules and to strive to apply them consistently over time. We figured this out in the private sector and it led to the development of the stock exchanges we see all over the world. There is no doubt the social sector is more complex with more variables to control, but I am confident we can figure out something similar over time as more data we can trust becomes available. And I believe the network of investors we have gathered can play a role in making it happen.
Jeff Edmondson is the Managing Director of StriveTogether, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks. StriveTogether is a national cradle-to-career initiative that brings together leaders in Pre-K-12 schools, higher education, business and industry, community organizations, government leaders, parents and other stakeholders who are committed to helping children succeed from birth through careers.