Are you measuring the future or the past?

This was the story of Hurricane
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyberuly

Recently, I’ve found myself involved in a multitude of conversations about community benefit organizations and education.

Something Hildy said reminded me that I need to discuss running those two entities “like a business”.

One of the first things that you hear from business people after a story in the news about a failing school or wacko teacher is that schools need to run like a business.

Listen to the news about today’s natural disaster response (or some such) and you’ll hear the same about community benefit organizations (sometimes called non-profit or non-governmental organizations).

“Run them like a business and it’ll solve all your problems”, they say…in so many words.

Backlash

Of course, the next thing out of the mouths of some of the folks involved in education and community benefit (you might call them non-profit – a poorly chosen name) organizations is something like this:

“Oh, you mean like Enron, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers?” (or the currently top-of-mind business cretin of the moment)

Why yes, of course. That’s exactly what those silly business folks meant.

They have studied your troubles at length and have decided that it’s best to run your school district or your food bank like some sort of corrupt dictator, complete with automatic weapons, fast cigarette boats, and under the table money.

With that behind us, let’s get real.

Reality strikes

Seriously though, what does someone mean when they say they want to run your school or non-profit  “like a business”?

In the case of schools, let’s gloss over the likelihood that it probably means they don’t really get how complex a school district budget is, noting that it’s a recursive budget of budgets consisting minimally of bond funds, Fed and state monies and that oh-by-the-way annual operating budget.

Those oddball budgets are then scrambled a bit more by the goofy manner we’ve chosen to fund education: Head count, which produces oddball economies of scale of the type that few in business have to deal with.

In the case of the community org, the common mistake is assuming that all (or most) activities have to have a hard dollar return on investment – and that if it one can’t be found, they are failing somewhere, perhaps everywhere.

What they really mean about schools

I think much of this comes from a sense of low/no accountability, something that makes business owners nuts (oh just wait, we’ll come back to that).

Much of this comes from the news media. You see stuff about the teacher in Florida who slept with her 15 year old student, or stories of rooms full of bad teachers in NYC who are paid not to teach because they can’t be fired, or the litany of schools failing based on No Child Left Behind Act criteria and it isn’t long before it’s easy to stick em all in one bucket of non-accountability.

The obvious place for business people to start is “Why are you spending $ on that?” and “Why can’t you fire that bad teacher?” (contracts, legalities and the 17 conflicting definitions of “bad teacher” notwithstanding)

What they really mean about orgs

In the case of a non-profit (I had to use the term at least once), it often relates to the blank stare you often get when asking for standard business metrics, such as marketing leads, “sales” and return on investment.

The organization that measures their success on things that are hard-to-quantify financially is going to take some heat from people used to using standard metrics to gauge success. Even the ones I’m involved in often have a difficult time producing that info.

Questions of a future past

The big questions in all of this are:

  • What’s getting measured – and are those the right things to measure?
  • What are you doing with that information?
  • What does any of that have to do with what you’re REALLY trying to accomplish over the long haul?

Think about it… we measure teachers based on their students’ grades and test scores. Like tax returns, they indicate historical performance.

What do we do to measure future performance?

I’d like to be able to see trend info showing how various learner types do in each teacher’s class and how each type of student’s learning, problem solving and creativity advances as they experience each teacher type.

For example: Who is the most effective math teacher for 6th grade kids who learn visual/spatially and are reading 2 years below grade level? Why is that teacher so effective for that group? Why does that teacher fail to reach non-spatial/non-visual learners as well as other teachers? Why is he so effective with Asperger’s kids? Do these success trends change when they are teaching science or history? Why?

Do these patterns of success (or not) change based on race, income, family situation and other factors we can’t control? What controllable factors are impactful, if any – for this learner type? Have you tried addressing them? What happened?

Answer: They have no idea. But it isn’t entirely their fault. They’re forced to answer the wrong questions in order to find a way to balance their budget.

Is there a line of questions like that – about your business – that would transform your thinking from past performance (letter grades) to future performance? (matching learner types with teachers who are the most effective at teaching each type of learner)

The punch line: Considering that last question, are you truly running your *business* like a business?

The Cure for “The Culture of Cant”

[audio:http://www.rescuemarketing.com/podcast/pollyannaprinciples.mp3]
Droopy dog

It’s not unusual for small business owners to be involved in community organizations, so in that spirit I have something a little different from our every day discussion here – yet still completely applicable to your business – no matter what that business does.

Rather than Friday’s normal Hotseat Radio show, today I had the pleasure of interviewing Hildy Gottlieb, long time friend and author of the newly released book “The Pollyanna Principles“.

Hildy is a nationally-recognized consultant and President of the Community-Driven Institute in Tucson AZ, and has been called “the most innovative and practical thinker in our sector”.

That sector is what folks in Hildy’s business call “non-profit organizations” – which unfortunately describes exactly what those organizations are NOT.

One of Hildy’s missions is to change the mindset inside these organizations is to encourage them to call themselves “Community Benefit Organizations”, which describes what they are and do. The result of that subconsciously takes the “Droopy dog” attitude out of the picture.

You may feel that this is outside of the normal bounds of BIP, but in fact, it strikes at the core of it: business fundamentals, attitude and a number of the other things we talk about here on a regular basis.

You need to run it like a business

No doubt you’ve heard people say “non-profits need to run like a business” – and in fact we examine the pros and cons of that assertion, why it’s true, false and doesn’t necessarily mean what you might think.

After listening to my conversation with Hildy, I’m hoping you’ll grab a copy or 3 of her new book and provide them to the orgs that you support and believe in.

No matter what you do to encourage (convince, coerce, etc – you make the call) your favorite board member to read The Pollyanna Principles, the ultimate goal must be to make it happen. Hildy has created a great piece that organizations can use for motivation, strategy and like it or not, to arrive at the real long-term, more than a calendar quarter away, community-changing vision and a roadmap to get there.

Profit is evil? Horse Hockey.

The temptation by some in these organizations might be to ignore the great business books and their strategies, simply because they are supposedly all in the name of profit and thus not applicable to the charitable organization.

The fact of the matter is that neither assertion is true.

Still, if you prefer to stick to strategic books about the charitable sector rather than crossing over that supposedly evil profit line, then The Pollyanna Principles will be right up your alley because it was written just for you – because it’s all business. Your business.

Buy The Pollyanna Principles here

Please accept my apologies for the audio quality. We had some volume dropouts, an odd hum here and there, as well as some cool coffee shop environmental noise as I spoke with Hildy from a coffee shop in Missoula (Break Espresso, if you’re taking notes). Hildy and I have what appears to be several sessions left before we are “done” discussing her book, so I will make sure we have better infrastructure in place for those sessions.