Calling your shots in 2018: measuring success in the nonprofit sector

Babe ruth
Photo: Sporting News 2015
Matt Warner

Matt Warner | President, Atlas Network

I grew up playing pool with my Dad. We played “no slop” which means you had to call your shot before you struck the cue ball. If you sunk your ball in a way you didn’t intend, you would have to pull it out, put it back on the table, and lose your turn.

The power of this principle is further illuminated in the way we celebrate the lore of people like Babe Ruth who, in one telling, famously pointed past the outfield to announce his intention to swing for the fences. And, of course, when he hit a home run just as he signaled he would it lent great credibility to his skill as a hitter.

Willingness to invite accountability by announcing publicly one’s intentions to achieve a specific result is fast becoming an important practice for the successful nonprofit leader.

In the fall of 2016, Libertad y Progreso (LyP), a nonprofit think tank in Buenos Aires, Argentina, announced its plans to raise awareness about the injustice of a tariff on certain technologies like laptops and tablets. The LyP team shared their plans with us at Atlas Network and explained why they believed their efforts would lead to the tariff’s repeal. “Calling their shot” in this way made it clear to us that if we supported their work with a grant we would know without ambiguity whether or not the investment paid off and, given the relatively short timeline LyP had suggested, we knew we could be confident in assigning credit.

By summer 2017, after a rigorous research and advocacy campaign that communicated robust findings with a simple yet powerful message, the tariff was repealed in Argentina. I am confident LyP’s work achieved the impact it intended and I attribute that confidence to the way in which its leaders were willing to hold themselves publicly accountable to a very clear outcome.

The “calling your shots” principle, however, does much more than just increase your credibility with key audiences. When fully embraced, it ends up permeating everything an organization does and how it decides to do it. Once a specific outcome has been targeted by the team and announced, downstream activity becomes more focused and disciplined as that which needs to be done becomes clear.

Debates over tactics, for example, become much less vulnerable to misguided conclusions based on what is familiar, popular, or safe. It becomes harder to fall into the old trap of what one Harvard team calls “isomorphic mimicry,” the practice of pursuing success by copying what you can replicate from successful peers. The reason this can be a mistake, in my observation, is it confuses what success actually is. Instead of discovering how to be a successful organization, the goal becomes appearing to be a successful organization, a difference that at times may be subtle but is, in fact, of great consequence.

At a workshop I attended in Boston a couple years ago, nonprofit guru Dan Pallotta told a story about his early days working to create highly successful fundraising events for AIDS research. After some surprising wins right out of the gate, Pallotta decided he needed to keep the momentum going by announcing a list of new cities and dates for upcoming events. His team was appalled. ‘We don’t have any events set up in those cities,” they said. He replied something to the effect of, ‘Well, we’d better!’ And, of course, they scrambled and made it happen.

I’m not suggesting nonprofit leaders make a habit of shooting from the hip like that. But this story does make an important point about the kind of leaders we want to be. Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable to a public goal? Are we willing to be ambitious even when we don’t know exactly how we’re going to achieve success?

What if we fall short? Of course, it’s possible. But I believe if we aim high and fall short we will have achieved more than we would have otherwise. And if we are sincerely determined and committed to succeed, our failures will give us a better vision of what we need to do differently, thus setting us on an even stronger course for success. I’ve also seen that as long as we remain transparent about our progress and make sure we are communicating our commitment to new plans in response to failure, those who have supported us will keep the faith.

Having the courage to “call your shots” is important. In the nonprofit sector we suffer from something so central we’re reminded of it every time we mention our sector’s name. Without profit, we have no natural margin to measure success. We have no margin that makes innovation or failure the only two options. Instead, we have to create our own margins for innovation. By reaching just beyond what we already comfortably know how to do and then holding ourselves publicly accountable to a specific set of outcomes, we create a margin for innovation and success that will then clarify our path forward and, just as importantly, help us see what we no longer have the luxury of continuing.

As a service organization to other nonprofits, Atlas Network always wants to practice what we preach. What shots are we calling in 2018? For one, we want to contribute directly to 1,000,000 people around the globe lifting themselves out of poverty.

We’re calling that shot. Is it ambitious? Yes. Do we know exactly how to do it? No. But we have a plan. We have learned an incredible amount over the last two years about how to approach this goal. We have built a robust and highly selective grant making process that awards $5 million per year to the most promising projects in our nonprofit sector, those that call their shots by enumerating specific outcomes. A subset of those grants go to projects, like the tariff repeal in Argentina, that seek to expand economic choices for every day people.

Our research, published in 2017 by the World Bank in its annual “Doing Business” report, quantifies the relationship between projects that expand economic choice and poverty reduction. We tallied our current portfolio of wins in 10 countries which have contributed to the equivalent of 405,000 people lifting themselves out of poverty.

In 2018, we plan to do more. Please hold us accountable. We don’t know with certainty that we will succeed, but, like Babe Ruth, we have the confidence to believe we can do it. And we’re organizing ourselves in every way possible to pull it off.

So, if you’re a nonprofit leader working for big wins this year we want to know what shots you’re calling so we can cheer you on as we all swing for the fences in 2018.