Levine Partners

Be the change you want to see – Gandhi

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

 

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?

Doing Good Work… At What Cost? — October 13, 2014

Doing Good Work… At What Cost?

There is something about doing “good” work.  Whether one devotes their career to working with the underserved, equality or human rights issues, or one dedicates large blocks of volunteer time to organizations that work on, it is lumped into the “good works” category.  Awards and high praise for those who do this “good work” abound.  There are constant testimonials, award dinners, special events and even “genius” grants for those whose work leaves and impact on our social structure. But most of us never elevate our good work to this level of exaltation and reward.  Most of us try to find that small niche that fits our passions and our capacity and then do the “good” that we can.  As we seek out these opportunities for good work, how do we measure the impact?  This has become an almost overpowering question for the nonprofit sector.  Can we be doing good and not measure its outcomes?  Can we provide services without tracking them?

I remember from my childhood an early TV show called “The Millionaire”.  I loved to watch how this mysterious, wealthy person would anonymously do good by sharing his wealth with others, never asking for recognition and never requiring accountability on how it would be used.  I am probably dating myself with this story (it was a black and white show, before the days of color TV!), but I now wonder if we have lost something in our fervor to prove that what we do, in our good work, makes a difference.

There is a wonderful quote from Albert Einstein that says: Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.  The gist of this is that we live in a time when doing good has been elevated beyond and above a personal sense of satisfaction.  We are bombarded with requests for data and measures that will demonstrate success.  These demands are not just coming from those who fund “good works”, but from those who consume them; from elected officials; from academicians and many, many others.  We seem to be consumed with being able to count things, but not so much with what really counts.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I believe strongly in having measures, outcomes and accountability.  But I also believe in the simple “good work” that happens when we seek uncharted ways of approaching a problem.  I believe that failure can often open doors to new approaches and new ways of thinking.  I believe that if we only use approaches that can be measured and counted, we may lose some valuable options.  I think that adding a “wild card” option in with the tried and true may generate some new ways to approach our difficult issues…and that measurable outcomes will often follow.  There are risks involved in this.  Funders don’t like the unknown and there is reluctance to test new waters without some prior demonstration of success.  But if we did not have pioneers who were willing to jump in before all had been proven, much of what we know today would not exist.

The cost of measuring outcomes and learning from this what works and what does not is high.  The cost of not taking on new strategies to see if they will work is higher.

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners, LLP

Planning is not about the Plan — October 3, 2014

Planning is not about the Plan

Planning is not about the Plan

Marty Levine

Do a Google search on “change” and you’ll have more than 249,000,000 opportunities to sort through! Amazingly that’s more than 10 times the number of references found for Barack Obama. Certainly change has gotten our attention.

And for very good reason. To be alive is to be in constant flux. Both the internal and the external environments of every organization are in constant motion. Small and large changes take place around the clock. Some are seen as they occur while others occur unnoticed until their impact is felt at a later time. Sometimes the pace of change seems slow and at others it is a rush. But change never stops.

From this perspective, every moment is new and the future is largely unknown.

Leaders, professional and volunteer, are responsible for guiding their organizations into that the future in fulfillment of their mission. Their challenge has been and continues to be how to chart a path forward into a future that is never certain and cannot be fully known.

The frequent response to this challenge is to be sure we implement a serious effort to plan for that future. Our literature is full of the theory and practice of organizational planning. Effective organizations are counseled to ensure they devote sufficient resources to the work of planning. As a corollary, we are taught that the bedrock of good planning is having good information, so we often become consumed with gathering and analyzing information about how our organization functions and about the world in which it operates. And from that foundation of good data we think we can solidly build our organization’s plans for the next 3, or 5 or even 10 years.

And then all too often the plan sits and gathers dust. Or, after it is put into action it quickly runs out of momentum and becomes forgotten as the organization encounters unexpected difficulties, sees new and unpredicted opportunities emerge or gets overwhelmed by its day to day operations. Organizational inertia wins out and things return to old directions and ways of operating.

We often fail because while we are planning to meet changes, we act as if our organization and the environment they operate in are stable and predictable. We think that if we have enough information about our past and present we can see the future clearly. While talking about the constancy of change, we build our futures on static foundations, forgetting that what we know today will not capture the changed world of tomorrow.

Living in a stabile world is comfortable. We are surrounded by the familiar and we know how to respond. Planning as if we operate in a stable world keeps us in this cocoon and protects us from the discomfort of uncertainty and the challenge of adapting. Too often as we start to plan we stop thinking about change.

The work of planning is more important than the plan itself. We need to constantly be aware of the changes that are occurring inside our organizations and of the conditions in which we operate outside our organizational boundaries. The path requires a keen understanding of what we want to accomplish and a recognition that the way there is not through a stable unchanging landscape. We need the ability to constantly see the world as it is unfolding and considering whether our current directions are still the right ones. It requires us to be able to make quick changes in order to meet the challenges of new and unforeseen conditions. It requires us to see data as a barometer for change and as grist for the mill of creativity and innovation within our organizations. Data is only a tool and not the answer to what should be done.

Organizations that are able to flourish in a world of change have clear understandings of their purpose and clear visions of what they want to accomplish. They will recognize that the way they reach those goals are not why they exist. They will have created an environment in which there is constant reflection about the path ahead. They will have the ability to stop in their tracks and change strategies. They know that their plan cannot be seen as fixed and unchangeable. They embrace change as their constant companion and that their ability to constantly adapt to new conditions is the key attribute needed to fulfill their vision.