Pardon me if I say something that doesn’t conform to the common wisdom we’ve been hearing lately about measuring effectiveness. It’s not that I object to this movement. GuideStar after all has been urging donors for more than ten years to give with your heart and your head. Our premise is that armed with GuideStar data, donors will make better and more confident decisions and nonprofits will be more efficient and effective. So I understand – and support – the encouragement for more analysis and evaluation. But I’ve been getting a little uncomfortable with the conversation that seems to suggest that all that matters is rigorous analysis managed by experts who know more than we do and are the only ones capable of measuring a project’s progress. Our approach at GuideStar assumes donors often want a variety before they make a decision. That’s why we are working with Great Nonprofits to add user reviews from donors, volunteers, and program recipients. And why we’re putting more focus on the GuideStar Exchange program to collect more data directly from nonprofits.
Last week my wife and I heard Greg Mortensen speak before a packed theater in Washington DC. Mortensen is the co-author of the best selling book Three Cups of Tea and author of a recently released new book called Stones for Schools. Mortensen grew up in Africa as the son of missionaries and after a brief time living in Montana found himself in Pakistan. Today because of his efforts hundreds of schools have been built primarily for young girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries historically opposed to secular education, particularly for girls. Mortensen’s recipe for success is simple: just do it. He told us that he is frequently asked to describe his strategic plan and he replies that he has no strategic plan. If you have a passion and feel strongly about an issue, he says, you need to do something about it. (By the way, his “no plan” line drew an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience.) Waiting for some one else to tackle an issue isn’t going to make it happen. As he put it: you can’t fight poverty from a think tank in Washington.
When Mortensen started out, he had no idea how to fundraise. He started by writing to over 500 celebrities and ended up raising a grand total of $100 – from NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who lived nearby in Montana. He shared a wise saying that’s worth remembering next time you’re feeling low: “when it is dark, you can see the stars.” But some young kids were touched by a talk he gave in a school and helped to raise 62,000 pennies – enough for him to build his first school. Today he supports a program called Pennies for Peace, where young people throughout the world get involved and raise money for his project and for other new nonprofits.
He also learned – after some false starts – to let go of the control of the projects and give more responsibility to the locals. As a result they became invested in the success of the schools and destruction of the schools by militants has been remarkably low.
My point? A successful nonprofit program usually starts with passion, and to be more pointed a passionate, driven leader. And passion usually trumps analytics and expert opinions. Could Mortensen be more successful, more efficient, more effective? Could we learn lessons about how to replicate his good work and scale it up? Probably. Even the American military is asking him for advice on how to deal with the locals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the analytic doctors come to town, however, and argue that only they can collect the data and make a proclamation about an organization’s effectiveness, I hope they’ll take a moment to think about the power of passion and the success of Greg Mortensen.
The preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff, Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.