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Leap of Reason (Mario Morino): “Back to School” Book Report by Melinda Tuan

September 22, 2011

Melinda Tuan

This is the second in a series of “Back to School” book reports by members of our team. We selected books based on their potential not only to help us in our own work in identifying high-impact philanthropic opportunities but also to help donors interested in improving their philanthropic impact. We hope this series helps make some of our own learning transparent so that others may benefit.

Here at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy we often hear from donors concerned with whether their philanthropic funds are making a difference. This week’s “Back to School” book report by Melinda Tuan, Senior Fellow, reminds donors how they can support the kind of learning that leads to impact.

“How do you know your organization isn’t hurting clients?”

This important question leapt out to us (pun intended) from Isaac Castillo’s essay “First Do No Harm…Then Do More Good,” in Mario Morino and Venture Philanthropy Partners’ recently released book Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity.

Castillo describes how one of the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)’s parenting programs added lessons on domestic violence to an existing curriculum. After analyzing tests administered to program participants before and after the program, Castillo was shocked to find that LAYC’s program actually increased participants’ acceptance of domestic violence. Because LAYC monitors its program outcomes, staff quickly learned that “in a very real sense, our program caused harm to our participants, despite the best of intentions.” Thanks to its measurement and management practices, LAYC was able to calibrate the program until it achieved their goals and then confirmed the resulting positive results.

Castillo’s essay aptly highlights the message of Leap of Reason: the importance of measuring outcomes in the social sector.

The slim volume includes a 60-page monograph by Morino that provides a multi-faceted rationale for outcome measurement in which each chapter is summarized by a series of “Take-Homes in Tweets.” (You can follow and contribute to the #LeapofReason hashtag on twitter.) The book also provides a framework for nonprofits to create a measurement system, top suggested readings, and a handful of essays by nonprofit experts and practitioners providing real-world examples and advice.

Morino doesn’t pull any punches when he points out that donors often create problems when they ask nonprofits to develop measurement systems that focus on the wrong metrics or are overly complex given the size of the organization. Despite the challenges of measurement, Morino argues that all donors and the nonprofits they fund need to answer the question:

“Am I accomplishing what I set out to do?”

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