Levine Partners

Be the change you want to see – Gandhi

Choosing Self-Interest… or Choosing Greater Good… — December 27, 2021

Choosing Self-Interest… or Choosing Greater Good…

Carole Levine     December 26, 2021

There are a lot of issues swirling about, that capture our attention, grab the headlines, dominate our conversations and, more often than not, cause us great frustration, anxiety, and despair. Headlines about the newest strain of the Covid virus – Omicron – raise questions as to whether this nation can stand together to fight this disease. We see those who are the most ill are those who refuse vaccination.  We see state and national leaders locking arms to oppose remedies that will protect their constituents from spreading as well as being infected by Omicron because they cynically claim that doing so will infringe on “individual rights.” And this is just one example among many.

Today’s so-called political leaders are embroiled in a kind of leadership that is focused on self-interest and the perpetuation of their own positions of power and control. They have been clever in raising fears among their constituents about the “consequences” of voting in those whose views are different from theirs, particularly when it comes to issues of taxation, costs, and financing government services. Their interests have little to do with the needs of those who voted them into office, but more in how to sustain their positions in government at the local, state, and national levels.  And as much as I would like to put most of the blame on the Republicans who have worked for years to get to this place, I cannot say that the Democrats are without fault and have not contributed their share to the chaos, confusion and division that makes up politics on both sides of the aisle.

It is one of the Democrat’s own, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is the obstructionist sitting between passage and failure of President Biden’s “Build Back Better (BBB)” Act which would invest in childcare and elder care, climate change, immigration, affordable health care, affordable housing, earned income tax credits, and addresses inequity in our tax system and more.  The majority of people in this nation (66%) support this effort and much of what BBB contains.  But the Democrats cannot get one of their own to agree. Some of the environmental regulations will hurt his personal wealth and investments in the coal and fossil fuel industry of West Virginia. While not saying this directly, that is clearly one of the reasons why this wealthy, powerful Democrat will obstruct the passage of a bill that will help so many in need in his home state and in the rest of the nation. Manchin may deny this, but his other “reasons” for opposition are hard to sustain against the reports on what BBB will cost over time. .

And it seems hard to believe that all 50 Republican Senators can so easily ignore the needs of their constituents that would be well-served by this legislation.  Polls show that Americans remain steady in their support for what they see that Build Back Better will bring to them.  The numbers have remained constant between 61 and 64%. So, it seems strange that even Senators that have announced that they will not be running in 2022 or 2024 and thus do not have to fear the wrath of their party or that of Donald Trump or his followers, have not stepped forward to support what will benefit the middle and low-income people of their states. Choosing self-interest seems to be the chosen path, even when the consequences are limited. Perhaps, stepping outside the “norm” of one’s party is fraught with dangers that remain unseen to those of us who are not “insiders”.

At the state and local level, this “game” of self-interest seems to play out even more stridently. At this level, the racism, sexism, homophobia, and white nationalism can be clearly seen as new laws are passed, state districts and judicial districts are drawn and personnel who have served as nonpartisan county election officials for years are replaced by partisans who bring their biases to these positions. School boards have become highly politicized as have local library boards and almost any elected position in a community. Outside agitators and organizers are now part of groups that seemingly represent communities (i.e., parents at school board meetings). There is a lack of trust and a concern about whose words are really being spoken at a meeting or where that legislation was really written and by whom as issues move forward in communities and states.

The question that hangs over all of this, is “What is a person to do?” We can sit back and watch it as it steamrolls from one community to another, from one state to another, and as it fumbles back and forth at the national level.  As I have said before, we can pick and choose our battles and do what we can as individuals.  But I think these times call for more. I think we must be the examples that our elected officials are not. When they choose self-interest, we need to be the ones pointing the finger at them and saying, “shame”!  When they could have helped families with housing supports and chose to vote NO, we need to take pictures of (all of) their homes and ask why they get to live this way and their constituents don’t. If they oppose voting rights for people of color, we need to clearly point this out the corporations that fund their campaigns and urge people of color and others to boycott those companies that give to these candidates. 

We need to start in our backyards and grow from there to our front yards, our blocks, our cities, our counties, our states, and our federal government. Right now, all of it is at risk.  All of it is in danger and we could quickly find ourselves in an untenable place. This is the time for holding people accountable… especially those who represent you. They assume you will be there, and they count on your vote.  It is not fun to have to show up in protest all the time, but it does have an impact. It is not easy to make calls and write “letters to the editor” and send emails to elected officials, but we know they keep track of the numbers of those who do.  It is not a simple thing to be present and be a “thorn in the side” of an elected official, but it is always good to be recognized. So be that “thorn” and that letter-writer, phone caller, and activist.  And be safe out there! Wear a mask, be vaccinated and social distance. Stay healthy because there never was a time when you were more needed. And know that you are not alone.

State Voter Suppression Laws… Are They Coming from Sources Outsides of the States… — May 22, 2021

State Voter Suppression Laws… Are They Coming from Sources Outsides of the States…

Carole Levine    May 22, 2021

There was outrage when a leaked video of a meeting of Heritage Foundation donors showed Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, proudly stating that they were responsible for the new voter suppression laws in Georgia. Ms. Anderson bragged about legislation in other states saying, “In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.” Does this mean that voter suppression is part of the right wing philosophy that the “mothership” of Heritage Action for America – The Heritage Foundation has at its core? And does this bragging to donors beget more funds for this kind of work, thus laying the groundwork for a future of even more state (and perhaps local) election laws that will find new ways to limit the votes of people of color, the elderly, the disabled, the young and women. 

But the state of Iowa was not having any of this. Democrats in the Iowa state House of Representatives filed ethics complaints against Heritage Action and the Heritage Foundation for violating the state’s lobbying rules.  Other investigations in the state are also underway.  And investigators from a watchdog group apparently have video of Jessica Anderson bragging about her group’s work on crafting the law in Iowa that that cuts early voting, restricts mail ballot drop boxes, and takes away power from local election officials. “Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson told top Heritage Foundation donors in Tucson, Arizona, on April 22. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”

All of this is in dispute in Iowa, where the Republicans claim that no one met with anyone from the Heritage Foundation and no advice, lobbying or otherwise on voting legislation was exchanged.  No one from Heritage registered as a lobbyist as required by Iowa law although they claimed to have worked closely with the state legislature. “They definitely never had a single conversation with me,” said Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, one of the bill’s authors. “No emails. No text messages. No phone calls. No in-person meetings. No nothing. They wrote nothing to do with that bill. They had zero input.” Clearly, in Iowa, Heritage is getting little love and no traction.

But this is not exactly the case in a number of other states that have worked hard to suppress the vote since the large voter turnout of the 2020 election, and in Georgia since the Senatorial runoffs that followed in January 2021. In these states, the Republicans in power have tried to put some space between them and Heritage Action, there is a trail of connections.  In Georgia, where Heritage Action claimed to have given them the model for their legislation, contributing “eight provisions” in the Georgia law, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said they did not write the bill. Heritage did, however, register four lobbyists to advocate for the bill, submitted testimony on it, and hosted two members of the legislature at its donor summit (one was the bill’s author in the House who thanked the organization for its help). Heritage Action also had registered lobbyists in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  This was all part of its $24 million campaign to write, pass and defend restrictive voting bills.

As we ponder the work of organizations like Heritage Action (and the Heritage Foundation) in working hand in glove with state legislators to craft bills and develop model legislation that can be taken from one state capital to another, the question of just how common this is rears it head.  And the answer is quite common. And it is done on both sides of the isle. Interest groups with a stake in the game will often come to the table with not only an “ask” for a change in a law or a policy, but with the actual model legislation so as to make it easy on the legislator and his/her staff. This is done at the local, state and federal level.  Does it make one feel good about how our governments function?  Well, perhaps that depends on which side of what law you are you are advocating for.

And writing model legislation is big business.  Perhaps you have heard of ALEC.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded in 1970 and described on its website as America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. On its 2018 federal 990 form ALEC describes its mission as: a forum for stakeholders to exchange ideas and potential solutions.  ALEC’s mission is to advance and promote the Jeffersonian principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.        But just the year before, in 2017, its 990 read that its mission was to assist State Legislators, members of Congress and the general and business public by sharing research and educational information. One might wonder why this change in mission, or whether or not this really is a change.  ALEC’s 2018 990 form also shows that it took in over $9 million in revenue and contributions. One would only assume that number has grown since then. What ALEC is well known for is working with state legislators (and others) in doing just what Heritage Action has bragged about doing on voter suppression, only ALEC has a much larger portfolio.  Their work includes a list of 28 issues ranging from education and energy, to health, criminal justice, transportation, and workforce development. And if you need a model policy to use as a base for what your state is developing, ALEC is the place to go, as long as your politics align with right-wing federalism.

What was missing on the ALEC website was the link to voting suppression or some means of regulating voting to the advantage of the right. But perhaps, voting suppression is not something ALEC wanted to display openly on its website after backlash from corporate members in 2012 over its involvement in promoting voter ID and stand your ground laws. But ALEC, like Heritage Action is again deep in the muck of voter suppression. Writing this week for the Center for Media and Democracy, Alex Kotch exposes the ties between ALEC and its member state lawmakers and the churn of voter suppression laws that have come out after the 2020 election.  According to the Center for Media and Democracy, at least 80 ALEC-tied lawmakers are co-sponsors of 21 bills in 9 states that expand the power of poll watchers and over 100 politicians with ALEC ties are leading suppression efforts in battleground states.

Much of this work is supposedly done in secret with “secret” groups that later get exposed. A group, created in 2019, had its core work described by ALEC CEO in Lisa Nelson in an email inviting select legislators to join this secret group. Nelson stated, “The issues we plan to cover include but are not limited to; election law and ballot integrity; campaign finance; electoral college; redistricting and citizen vote questions.” They were joined in this work by staff from Heritage and supported by many of the corporations who later signed on to letters denouncing voter suppression after the Georgia laws were passed. Many of these corporations claimed to no longer be members of ALEC.

If you recall the fervor of denial that Iowa’s voter suppression laws were not written by unregistered lobbyists from Heritage Action, you might now ponder whether or not they might have come from ALEC (as have other, non-election/voting-related legislation). There is logic in making that connection. As these powerful, well-financed, corporately-backed organizations, both the Heritage Foundation (and its child – Heritage Action) and ALEC, wield their influence on our elected officials, it would be wise to give some thought to just how much power and influence they hold.  Who is in control when those we elect to office no longer need to think through what should go into a piece of legislation but can simply “fill in the blank” in a model that is designed to suppress the rights of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Women, the young, the disabled, and the elderly and to empower the wealthy and white supremacists.  Are we conceding the work of legislating to these organizations and their funders?  Perhaps we need to direct some of our outrage at these kinds of actions to support for the federal For the People Act of 2021 (H.R.1/S.1) and the Jon Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (H.R. 4/S.4).  Both address different aspects of voting suppression and the eliminate the use of dark money that protects donors who contribute to these suppression efforts. Perhaps it is time for more of us to follow the advice of the late Congressman John Lewis and get into “good trouble” when it comes to state legislation.

The Importance of Showing Up — May 19, 2017

The Importance of Showing Up

Last week, my husband and I attended yet another rally/protest.  We then marched almost 8 miles from the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago to Currie High School (near Midway Airport for those who know Chicago).  We chanted.  We waved at those who honked at us as they drove past.  We drank a lot of water along the way (it was a hot day).  At hour four, I was ready to stop, but I knew that completing this walk was important to my husband…and, as it turns out, it was important to me, too.   This march was the first day of a 200 mile walk to Springfield, Illinois to demand the Governor and legislature create a fair budget for the state after two years without one.  People in Illinois are hurting.  The poorest of our residents and our children have lost services, jobs and resources that they depended on.  And Illinois’ deficit grows each day that we are without a budget.  So we marched to make a physical statement that we care and that we want this resolved. We will not be marching the full 200 miles, but we will drive to Springfield at the end of the month to rally, once again, with those who walked the distance.  We will be there at the end of the march as we were at the beginning.  It is important to show up.

I support many causes with financial contributions and I sign multiple petitions and online lists daily.   I call my elected officials to voice my opinion and tell them how I want them to represent me.  All of these actions are important and make me feel like I can make a difference.  But, I believe I make a greater difference when I am physically present and not just a signature in cyberspace or a voice on the phone.   When I go to my elected officials’ offices to voice an opinion, it is clear that someone in that office needs to pay attention.   When I stand with others (whether hundreds or thousands, or more), I am part of a movement.  When I attend marches, rallies and protests, I often feel I am there representing more than myself.  I stand there for those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.  I stand for those who cannot be there but are most effected by the issues being protested.  I stand there because I am lucky enough to be able to show up.

So at the end of May, we will drive for 4 ½ hours to Springfield, to spend a few hours supporting those who marched 200 miles seeking a fair budget for Illinois.  But it will be time well-spent.  We will be physically present for those who could not and we will be their voices.  We will speak truth to power… directly.  We will show up, and continue to show up.  Because showing up supports more than our positions on issues.  Showing up supports others.

  • Carole Levine
Levine Partners’ Reflections on 2016… — January 4, 2017

Levine Partners’ Reflections on 2016…

The year 2016 will be seen as one of changes, surprises, wins and losses and unanticipated outcomes.  Few can predict what 2017 will bring, but few will be untouched by the changes to come.  For Levine Partners this past year has been one of honing our focus and responding to the perceived and real needs of our clients and challenging them (and us) to think strategically about their futures in a dramatically changing environment.  We have learned much…

  • We have learned that a secure future is a worthy goal, but cannot be counted on.
  • We have learned that a wonderful mission statement does not always indicate what organizations actually do.
  • We have seen politics and life changes intervene and redirect what seemed to be the right.
  • We have watched as the best laid plans need to be re-worked to align with new realities.
  • We have seen the resiliency of the nonprofit sector.
  • We have seen the value in partnerships and collaborations…and the need to give things up to make them work.
  • We have seen the tremendous commitment of both staff and volunteers to work with those who seek to better their lives.
  • We have learned that the corporate sector cares, but feels it must often respond to its own bottom line and constituencies.
  • We have seen changes in the foundation world, seeking to do good via both innovation and greater control of how funds are used.
  • We have experienced the generosity and commitment of individuals in supporting those organizations that share their values.
  • We have affirmed that plans and planning have value only when they come from shared efforts by staff and volunteers.
  • We have seen the value in strategic plans only when they are regularly used, evaluated and changed as the environment changes.
  • We continue to believe that thoughtful, strategic and focused assessment and planning are key to building strong futures for the nonprofit sector.
  • We are committed to continued work with nonprofits who seek to better their work and our world and are open to change.
Complexity Challenges Effective Strategy Implementation — August 14, 2016

Complexity Challenges Effective Strategy Implementation

News is made when a President’s vision makes its way through Congress and becomes the law of the land.  Yet it is only at that moment that the real work begins, the work of translating the words into action in a complex, multi-layered and often under financed real world.

Addressing concerns about the weakness of public education has been a priority issue for our last two Presidents.   From “No Child Left Behind” to “Race to The Top” there has been a consistent effort to improve student performance for all students and hold states, school districts and individual schools accountable for their efforts.  Last year, in a rare bipartisan moment, President Obama and Congress agreed on how to extend federal education funding and fix problems observed under the prior law.   Congressional agreement on what we need to do, a Presidential signature on what became known as the “Every Child Succeeds Act” seems to bring us to happy ending.  But the real work has just begun.

A major objective of the ECSA was to limit the role of the Federal government in public education and return power to the States.  The Federal funding will still be tied to each state’s demonstrating they are successfully educating their students, but States will have ability to define how they will go about producing and measuring desired outcomes.  The Federal government’s role will be less directive and more one of monitoring and advising.

A recent Government Accountability Office report focused on how well the Department of Education’s efforts to give states greater independence as it implemented NCLB.  For years the DoE had used its ability to grant waivers to States who felt they needed additional flexibility in their effort to meet federal funding requirements.  What GAO found in these efforts has significant implications for the how well the new law will work.  Education Week underscored the implications of the GAO report, “The Every Student Succeeds Act cedes a lot of control over accountability systems to states. But under No Child Left Behind waivers, some states didn’t do such a hot job of monitoring districts’ progress on things like school improvement and implementation of college- and career-ready standards.”

The GAO found that granting waivers was the easy part.  43 states were granted the right to modify some portion of the DoE policies for implementing federal law.  At least 12 of these states were found to have significant difficulty implementing the modifications they requested.  And the Department of Education has not had the ability to carefully study these difficulties and develop solutions for identified problems.  With a new law giving every state the right to create new systems, not knowing while earlier efforts at granting flexibility had failed and translating those learnings into new practice is of great concern.

The GAO report underscores the challenge of complexity.  A large federal organization works with 50 State Education organizations who are then responsible for working with 13,500 school districts with almost 100,000 schools.  But the GAO found that “Overseeing local districts and schools was particularly challenging for states, according to GAO’s analysis of Education documents. Meanwhile, Education has not yet evaluated its process to review, approve, and monitor the Flexibility waivers given to states or incorporated any relevant lessons learned into its plans for implementing the December 2015 reauthorization of the ESEA.”

For some this may seem another example of the inability of government, any government, to solve problems and operate effectively.  For me, this a clear illustration of the challenge any large, complex system has when it needs to make change happen.  One made more difficult when there is an expectation that change can happen quickly, without the time and resources needed to engage widely in understanding and supporting the new direction.  Learning from experience and using that new knowledge to modify a strategy maybe text book change management but seems not be good politics or be headline news.  If we want real solutions and real improvement, we may have to choose to do the work and ignore the politics.

The Purpose of Purpose — January 15, 2016

The Purpose of Purpose




I am done with mission statements for now.  I have spent a lot of time considering what they are and why we need them.  I have trained many in understanding the difference between “vision” (the lofty, broad, reaching statement about what you want to achieve —  like curing cancer, or doing away with poverty) and “mission” (the focused, statement of how you will achieve your vision).  I have read hundreds of mission statements and compared them an evaluated them.  Now, I am done.

I think that these things remove us from what we truly are about.  They make it easy to point to a vision and sigh because it is so un-achievable.  And mission statements are often so complex and complicated that they lose their message in the wording.  And they are quite often ignored when the lure of funding or the issue of the moment pulls organizations into new or different areas (the ever-famous “mission drift”) that have little connection to that mission or vision.

So, what is the alternative?  For me, it is all about purpose.

Wanting to stay modern and up to date, I Googled “purpose”.  The first thing that came up was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (on line) definition.  What followed it were about 5 references to a Justin Bieber album and song entitled Purpose.  Go figure!  But I was actually going for the definition (never been a Bieber fan) and it helped to clarify my thinking on this.  The practicality of purpose is very clear and succinct in its definition.  Here’s what I found:  Purpose (noun)

  • The reason why something is done or used : the aim or intention of something
  • The feeling of being determined to do or achieve something
  • The aim or goal of a person: what a person is trying to do, become, etc.


I would add “organization” along with person in the third bullet point definition.  The idea of both people and organizations having and pursuing purpose allows for a laser focus on why they exist and what they do.  It aligns with what can and should be achieved and, hopefully, pushes both people and organizations toward accomplishment.  When one achieves purpose, there can always be a next step.  Purpose is a base and a platform and allows for growth and expansion within its parameters.

Now, as I work with organizations, I try to help them achieve purpose.  Is this dramatically different than achieving mission?  For me, it is.  It makes what we do less mythical and more concrete.  It forces us to hone our messages and move forward with what is truly meaningful.  One can work to achieve a mission. But to work and live with purpose resonates with me in a much more profound way.  Purpose permeates all that we do…and for organizations and people, that is a profound way to make change in the world.

Your Purpose Ahead


Knowing Where to Search for Solutions – Choosing the Correct Perspective — December 4, 2014

Knowing Where to Search for Solutions – Choosing the Correct Perspective

Things often do not go as we want them to. We don’t reach our objectives.
So we set off in search for the cure for our ills and in this quest we too often look for answers in the wrong place. We seem to be programmed to look for individuals who have not done their jobs as we have asked to do them and are the cause of our problems. In the search for individuals, we too often look in the wrong place for the way forward.

Organizational performance problems are often thought to be the outcome of individuals not doing their jobs well, not trying hard enough and not caring enough. This is a focus that is reinforced by our culture which glorifies individual success. And it is this perspective that can blind an organization from finding real and lasting solutions.

I learned this lesson painfully several years ago in my work at Jewish Community Center Chicago. Every month we sent out hundreds of bills to our members asking them to pay for the services we had provided. And every month, two days later our phone lines were busy with angry complaints. People were billed and dunned for services they had not received and payments that had been made were not being reflected properly. We had a big problem and we needed to look for a way to fix it.

Since we had a state of the art accounting system in place and a team of skilled accountants overseeing it, the obvious answer seemed to be that staff who were responsible for collecting and entering the information were at fault.
Reflexively we gave them more training, held them more accountable and even replaced those who were judged as low performers.

But inaccurate bills kept going out and angry calls kept coming in.

And then I learned a valuable lesson from one of those supposedly badly performing staff. At a meeting to convey how serious the problem was and to tell our front line staff that they had to do their job better or else, one young woman was brave enough to speak up. She told me that because we had bought the forms that were used to collect data from our participants in bulk (to get a good price of course!), they quickly became stale and when she received them they were unreadable. She was doing the best she could, but they were just too hard to read! The solution to this problem was obvious, and it was not about individual staff performance.

W. Edwards Deming, the man who defined Quality and brought Constant Improvement to our shores after a brief exile in Japan, powerfully underscored the importance of looking at the system within which we do our work rather than at individual performance. He ascribed as much as 94% of the performance problems we face as resulting from how we have designed our strategies and our work processes and only 6% resulting from employee performance issues! (Take a look at this video if you are interested in seeing how he illustrated this point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeWTD-0BRS4.

Efforts to improve outcomes should be focused to looking for ways we can improve how we operate our organizations rather than on how individuals perform.

And often answers will come more from developing a culture of improvement which engages all of our key stakeholders including those closest to the “work” in an ongoing conversation about how we can do our work.
Changing the “how” will get us results; focusing on changing the “who” will keep us struggling.

Planning is a Mindset and not Just a Process Marty Levine — November 18, 2014

Planning is a Mindset and not Just a Process Marty Levine

Much of our work is focused on helping organizations effectively plan.
We can easily chart out the steps we think are important in planning effectively. The work of planning starts with ensuring that there is clarity about the organization’s vision and mission; these are the things that define what each organization is in existence to accomplish and express what success will look like. Vision and mission are the things that do not often change, if they change at all.
What follows clarifying mission and vision is the challenging work of examining the organization’s current situation; what it does well and what it struggles to do effectively; defining its strengths and weaknesses. If there are previous plans in place, this is the time to look at how the organization has fared in their implementation and what they may have learned along the way. Included at this point would be a look at the organization’s reputation from relevant stakeholder groups. Building a good picture of the factors that are affecting or might affect the organization’s operations is important.
Good and plentiful data is the material that builds effective planning. The cost of effective planning lies heavily in the work and difficulty of collecting and analyzing the information that fuels the analytic process. For many organizations the difficulty in developing quality information is great and the effort can be painful.
But the real challenge of effective planning lies not in the quantity, quality or breadth of the data that is brought to the table. Effective planning requires an open and inquisitive organizational culture that is ready to take a dispassionate look at who they are and how they are doing. It requires the ability to step outside the day to day work in order to look at the organization from a larger and more distant perspective. When done effectively it demands being willing to look at oneself in a manner which can expose issues and ask questions that can be difficult and uncomfortable. When done effectively it will ask for choices and decisions that can be exciting and hard and which can often create significant disruption in the organization’s status quo.
Often there is a sigh of relief as a planning effort is completed. Gathering the needed data is hard; working effectively with good data is hard; and the plan that emerges may be challenging to implement.
But the results of an effective planning process can become a millstone around the organization’s neck, preventing the organization from moving forward and fulfilling its vision. How can that be?
In the real world nothing remains frozen in time. That plan that was so on target when it was completed quickly becomes outmoded. The information that was gathered as part of the planning process quickly loses its relevance. The assumptions that were made about how our internal and external realities would progress are quickly replaced by new realities. The initial steps that the Plan set out will give us new learnings to consider.
If the plan becomes the organization’s bible, if its recommendations MUST be followed under any and all circumstances, the Plan quickly becomes a real obstacle to success.
More critical that the plan itself is the process of planning!
The effectiveness of an organization will reside in its ability to balance a commitment to a strategy with an ability to change course when conditions merit. The effectiveness of an organization will rest on its ability to create a culture of question, reflection and constant challenge.
If investing in planning is to be truly beneficial it will leave behind both a plan and a culture of ongoing and continuous planning. It will it provide knowledge, data, strategy and direction AND it will strengthen the organization’s ability to be innovative, brave and nimble.

Finding Your Way: Lessons from Alice and Your GPS — November 10, 2014

Finding Your Way: Lessons from Alice and Your GPS

 Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners LLP

Featured image

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Finding your way is not easy, even with an updated GPS or a good roadmap (if you can find a roadmap these days).  The advice given to Alice by the Cheshire Cat has great meaning, especially for the nonprofit world.  Knowing where you want to go and caring about your direction can make the difference between success and failure…between being sustainable and fading away (as the Cheshire Cat did).  So, how does an organization determine direction?  Experience suggests that it should be done thoughtfully…strategically…and wisely.

Organizations need to know where they want to go…and at the same time, they need to be prepared to get there via different routes.  Perhaps this is why my GPS offers me three choices in determining the best way to go.  In some cases, the “.quick” route is best.  Organizations can take a fast track toward their goal and bypass some of the distractions along the way.  But sometimes, the “direct” route is better.  It may take a bit more time, but allows for some flexibility in what is seen and done along the way.  And, I always ponder the third option – the “alternate” route.  It is often the longest (but not always), but it clearly is the most interesting.  It offers the option of new paths and interesting places.  This is true of organizations as well. Of equal importance, is the GPS’s ability to warn you of problems ahead (usually traffic congestion) and it then gives you the option of re-routing. Nonprofits often sense that problems lie ahead, but wait until they are in the “congestion” before they take action or make changes. There is a powerful lesson here.  If we can re-route before we come to a complete halt, nonprofits have many more opportunities for success.

Organizations, via their leadership, most often state directions in which they want to go via their mission statements.  They may want to cure a disease, or wipe out poverty, or raise the graduation rates, or other worthy goals.  They generally set out to achieve this via some sort of plan (usually a strategic plan) that sets goals and objectives to achieve their direction. The problem with this, in our fast-moving, ever-changing environment, is two-fold.  First:  What is perceived as the “right” direction may need to shift (and shift quickly) due to changes in leadership or board makeup, or due to new, innovative techniques for this work, due to competition, or due to the recognition that the current path is not getting you where you want to go.  Second: A plan is only useful if it is a living, growing document and many strategic plans are not.  Implementation of a strategic plan is most often the greatest stumbling block.  And, once implemented, a plan may have gaps and inefficiencies that could not be anticipated until it was in effect.  To find the right direction and be effective and sustainable, organizations need to commit to being flexible and nimble.

To be thoughtful, strategic and wise in setting an organizational direction takes thoughtful, strategic and wise leadership.  It takes leadership that is not afraid to tell the Cheshire Cat where it wants to go.  It takes leadership that is aware of all of its options and the various risks and rewards that each could bring.  It takes leadership that is ready to re-route when change is needed and when new information presents itself, or when a roadblock appears.  Finding direction matters.  And setting an organization on the right path (even when it is that “alternate” route) is the means to a journey that will get you to a sustainable, effective and worthy direction.

Measurable Outcomes – seriously? — October 24, 2014

Measurable Outcomes – seriously?

We are increasingly challenged to demonstrate the worth of what we do in clear and understandable ways. We are asked to prove that our work is effective and that we are making meaningful and measurable changes in the lives of those we serve. “Measurable outcomes” has become the mantra of funders, supporters and participants of all sizes and shapes.

This seems to be a reasonable request. Who can argue with it?

And yet so many organizations, new and old, big and small have difficulty answering this challenge.
Is this because these are poorly run organizations, who would be more successful if they got their act together? Or is the challenge of measurable outcomes more complex than meets the eye?

Complexity is the word too often left out of the conversation.

A typical model put forward for developing an effective measurement system looks like this:

Inputs  >>> Activities >>> Outputs >>> Initial Outcomes >>> Intermediate Outcomes >>> Longer term or Ultimate Outcomes

It reflects a flat, straight-line, mechanical model for a reality that is never so flat and never so simple. In an attempt to be easy to understand it blocks out complexity. In an effort to make it simple to demonstrate that it is what we do to get to desired outcomes, it almost assumes that we control what happens around us. It blocks out the real world we live and operate within.

In the real world we are challenged by the sheer complexity of the situations we are working in. And this complexity clashes with the desire for non-complex ways to judge effectiveness. The desire for simple and straight line understandings about how the things we do as service providers result in specific changes in the lives of those we serve, clashes with a human reality which says that few parts of our lives are flat and one dimensional. We are seeing this problem in the growing national debate about the effectiveness of public educational systems where there seems to be an inexorable demand on the part of public and private funders to see direct and one-dimensional connections between a teacher and the success of students. The appeal is that it is easy to collect data in this model of life and it seems to answer the accountability question that is connected to the desire for measurable outcomes. But in doing this simply, we are ignoring the complex set of forces which effect a child, a classroom, a school and a community.

Simple approaches to measurement are often made even more difficult by the expectation that results may be known in relatively short periods of time. Speed has become an unquestioned virtue but it may not be possible to know if what we do today with a young child will make a meaningful difference in their lives when they are a parent twenty years from now.
Measurement, real measurement of effectiveness is not simple and quick.

In a time of scarce resources and stiff competition this is not a popular message.
In an age of instant gratification, this says that it is not obtainable.
In a moment when faith and trust in organizations is weak, this reality demands more faith and trust.

Are we willing to recognize we may not be able to demonstrate effectiveness easily or quickly and begin a conversation about what we can do?