Levine Partners

Be the change you want to see – Gandhi

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.

I Was Wrong… — September 29, 2014

I Was Wrong…

I Was Wrong…

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners LLP   LevinePartners@comcast.net

How hard can it be to admit that you made a mistake?  Or that what you thought was working, just is not doing the job?  How difficult is it to look critically at what you are doing and determine that something else might be better…or that you really don’t need to do this anymore?

Apparently, for both people and organizations, this is very, very difficult.

But, if we are to move forward, being able to admit that what might have been working at one point in time is just not working now is an essential skill.

This is hard.  We like to believe that our work, whether paid or volunteer, is meaningful and productive.  We want to impact the world and make it better.  And, over time, we develop personal and organizational strategies to carry out our missions.  Some are highly effective.  Some are not.  Some worked well in the beginning…but times have changed.

Most organizations have missions that they will chip away at over time, but probably never completely accomplish.  Missions and visions should always have some “reach” in them, but often what is desired is either completely out of reach, or not truly a viable goal in these changing times.  What about others whose missions are similar (or even the same) as yours?  Is it best, in the nonprofit world, to try to “out-do” and compete with others around similar goals?  Determining if an organization is truly effective and competent in what they do is a difficult task.  When there are 10 coffee shops in a two block radius, does it make sense to open the 11th?  The same is true for nonprofits.  If there are some highly effective organizations doing what your organization struggles to sustain, perhaps it is time to re-think your place on the block.

Admitting that you were wrong, does not necessarily mean that you should shut your doors.  It may mean you need to change.  It may mean that you should carefully assess what you are doing well and look at your mission and goals in the context of the current environment.  You will want to honor your past, but not be locked into it.  Are there still unmet needs?

When the March of Dimes set out to eradicate polio, they dreamed of success over time. When that success was achieved, they were left with a dilemma.  Was their work done?  Did they now take a bow and fade into the sunset?  They chose to re-think their mission and re-invent themselves and their mission.  They are now a leader in the prevention of birth defects…a mission that, unfortunately, may not be “cured” as quickly as polio.  They had a highly effective infrastructure that they were not prepared to disband.  Instead, they chose to re-focus.  It took a brave, strategically thinking organization to make this dramatic change.

Being wrong can be viewed as a positive if it positions you to make change and not repeat or replicate what is not working or what is already being done well by others.  The hardest part of any journey is the first step.  Sometimes that needs to be a step back to truly access your purpose and how to deliver on it.  Sometimes that can be a total reinvention (a la March of Dimes) and sometimes it involves a narrowing of focus to what you do best and to what you are most passionate about.  And sometimes it can mean shutting your doors and supporting the work of others.  All are valid responses to knowing that something is wrong.  The only wrong answer is clinging to what is not working.  Saying “I was wrong” is often what is right.

Strategic Thinking/Strategic Planning — August 5, 2014

Strategic Thinking/Strategic Planning

Using Strategic Thinking as a Platform for Planning: Before, During, and After

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners, LLP


While strategic planning is a process that results in a concrete, long-term plan for an organization, strategic thinking is a way of working before, during and long after that plan is developed. Strategic thinking is a hallmark for visionary, effective people within visionary, effective organizations.

Strategic thinking:

  • Is an ongoing process/practice – rather than an episodic event
  • Is a creative and powerful skill
  • Involves synthesis, intuition and creatively forming a shared vision
  • Supports and develops an ongoing appetite for change and the vision of new possibilities.

Strategic thinking and strategic planning can be seen as separate functions. But, together they are a powerful tool for building highly effective organizations and people.

Strategic thinking is about:

  • Clarifying the existing work
  • Assessing financial and mission performance of core activities
  • Monitoring trends in the operating environment
  • Testing the assumptions behind strategic plans
  • Adjusting or discarding a strategy
  • Deciding to do fewer things in order to do things better.

Strategic thinking requires leaders (staff and volunteers) to:

  • Take and lead efforts in leaps of faith
  • See and believe in a vastly different, radically better future
  • Create the culture and infrastructure for the organization.

So what is the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking? Strategy is the coordinated action to create and sustain a competitive advantage in carrying out an organization’s mission. Strategic thinking is the actual practice that creates and builds an organization’s muscle to be continuous strategic thinkers. Strategic thinking is the driver and strategic planning is the resulting roadmap. Organizations need to continuously think and act strategically.

Fear of Change — July 11, 2014

Fear of Change

At a time when change seems to be constant and rapid, it seems odd that so many organizations find it hard to change themselves. Even when organizations find it harder and harder to fulfill their mission they may also find it hard to make the significant changes necessary to remain relevant and successful.


All of the good planning, using the best of information and taking all of the time needed to make sure new ways work, cannot guarantee an organization will fulfill its mission more effectively and that those it serves will be served more effectively.

Not only might change not make things better, it could make things worse!

Moving from the known and comfortable to the new and unsure may seem too risky. It certainly will feel uncomfortable for all.

For organizations that have vital responsibilities to the people they serve, the recognition that there are no guarantees can raise the fear that changes that do not work will result in clients being served less effectively; that fear can stop an effort to meet the challenges before an organization even gets started.

In the world of Non-profit organizations which provide critical human services this is a fear that effects staff and volunteer alike. The stronger the vision and the deeper the commitment they have to the work, the stronger the fear can be.

But while there are no guarantees that new approaches and methods will be better than present efforts, there is also great risk in doing nothing in the face of declining effectiveness. Standing still in the face of struggle will result in continued struggle and growing ineffectiveness.

The organizational choice is between continuing to operate poorly and taking the risk of trying new ways that may work but have no guarantee of success.

The answer to this dilemma is to see change as not a one-time event but as part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement.

Building the ability to see the organization’s internal and external reality is the foundation for building an organization that can manage an effective effort toward improvement. A strong and unbiased sense of reality, the ability to see success and failure as equally important data points and a willingness to challenge sacred cows, allows an organization to see change as an ongoing effort designed to improve results.

The need is for organizations to see themselves as constantly evolving organisms. Organizations (and their leaders) need to see change as a continuous effort to fulfill their purpose in the face of never ending change in their environment.

If the goal of planning and making change is to reach the perfect answer so that the next 100 years have been shaped, here is our advice: Don’t start! It will not happen.

The best way to confront fear of change is to never stop changing!


Marty Levine

Time for Change? — July 8, 2014

Time for Change?

Changes Picture

Years ago, when I was first working nationally with nonprofits in need of training and technical assistance, I came across an unattributed quote.  It stated:  Change is good… You go first!   Today, when I goggled that statement, I got 778,000 results.  Clearly there is an interest, perhaps a “market” for change.  But to what end?

I looked through some of my past materials to find how I used that quote and there it was – on a very nice overhead slide.  Obviously, I was using it before the advent of Power Point.  It always got a laugh from those who viewed it, whether in a training or in a more formal lecture, but I was never sure of just how or if it pushed others’ thinking.

Today, as I approach my work and volunteerism with nonprofit organizations, the issue of change is ever-present.  It is discussed, questioned and given high priority…but I am not sure that it is really embraced.  We are a nostalgic people.  We tenaciously hang on to what we have done and been and hesitate to take the risks involved in real change.  We rarely ask the really hard questions: What are we about?  Why do we exist?  What is our purpose?  The answers to these questions might be dangerous to what currently exists… But these answers might be the determinant of a better future for what nonprofits seek to do.

Understanding purpose is an integral part of being an effective organization (or human being for that matter!).  It helps us to keep our focus, do our work more efficiently and weed out what is superfluous to our mission and vision.  But often organizations continues to do things that are no longer relevant or effective in the name of “sustainability” or because they have a funding source.  If they cease doing something it could mean that what they are (their purpose) is no longer what it was.  This is the scary part of change.   It can lead to organizations stepping back from what they have done for years.  It might lead some into new, more relevant and effective areas; some into mergers and collaborations with others who also do similar work; and some into closing their doors.  All of these options require courageous leadership (something I hope to write about soon) and risk-taking and, of course, change.  These kinds of change are not easily accepted.  They require careful outreach, discussions with funders, constituents and communities.  They require thoughtful planning and marketing.  But… when done well, they provide communities and constituents with services and resources that are current, relevant and truly make a difference.

So…  I am now reminded of a second, often quoted and seldom attributed quote (also on a very dated overhead):  If we do what we have always done, we will get what we have always got.  (It only had 289,000 results on Google!)  Perhaps it is time to change.  I’m ready.  Anyone want to go first?

The Future Picture

Carole Levine, Principal

Levine Partners, LLP