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Interview: Debra Natenshon explains why you need to know what’s working if you want to change the world

,    /   Oct 19th, 2010Interviews

The difficulty of measuring impact is one of the most persistent and nagging challenges in the social arena. Organizations evaluate their results in different ways, using different tools and benchmarks. The result is a hodgepodge of metrics that make it difficult to compare apples to apples.

Working in the private sector, Debra Natenshon saw that businesses operating around the world had to hold to certain common standards in order to coordinate and compare their efforts. When she left business to work on social problems, she decided to apply her knowledge at the Center for What Works, a benchmarking organization that develops and advances metrics that enable organizations and funders to understand how well they are really doing. Here, Natenshon shares her thoughts on why it’s so important to know where you’re succeeding and where you’re not.

Dowser: What is benchmarking and why is it so important in the social sector?
Natenshon: Benchmarking is the process of knowing what works in your organization and then being able to look at other similar processes or organizations to glean practices to lead you and your colleagues toward continuous improvement. We also call it ’performance measurement.’

What first got you interested in business and nonprofit development and strategy?
After I graduated from college, I did a lot of work and travel and volunteering in several countries in Asia. When I came back to the States I landed a great job working for a cross-cultural consulting firm. That corporate experience, with a focus on understanding the differences between how people do the same kind of business around the world, was really challenging, and was the first thing that got me interested in business development and strategy.

Then, after working in the private sector and putting a lot of blood, sweat and tears into an Internet startup in the late ‘90s, I went back to graduate school. I thought it was important to get a business degree, but I wanted it focused on the social sector. That’s what led me to the Center for What Works.

How did you get the ’head honcho‘ position right out of the gate?
At the time, What Works was an organization that had basically gone dormant for several years and they were looking to re-launch it, but didn’t have the time or the right person to do it. So, I rewrote a strategic business plan to re-launch the organization and the founder and the board at the time said, ’Wow, this is pretty interesting. Do you want to implement your own plan and run the organization?’ It was just through a series of hard conversations and bulldog tenacity.

Can you tell me a bit about the Urban Institute proposal?
When I joined, there was a preliminary idea in place to do a set amount of research work with the Urban Institute to develop this concept of measurement and performance benchmarking across the nonprofit sector. I said, ’We have this body of research that’s really important but not really implementable. It’s going to be really hard for nonprofits on the ground to figure out what to do with it.’ I then spent the next two years trying to make this information useful to people who are running nonprofit programs, rather than just to their research and evaluation departments.

What’s the difference between working in the social sector and the private sector?
The inherent competition of the private sector. I had to be really careful who I shared information with, because competitors could steal our ideas. Everything was proprietary. Now, my goal and my style are so much more open. If people want to steal my ideas, I guess that’s one option. Hopefully they’ll choose to partner with me instead.

Is the Center for What Works innovative in its field, or is it more of an adaptation of something from the for-profit world brought into the nonprofit world?
I think there are clear differences. In the private sector, benchmarking is possible because it’s much easier to do when you’re talking about a business process that’s more tangible, like manufacturing. When you’re talking about programmatic benchmarking in the social sector, measurement in general is much more difficult, let alone comparing one organization to another.

You have a number of free online resources for organizations and individuals. Do you have a goal for where you want the work to be in five or 10 years?
I would really like to see more of an integrated use of the Internet in creating communities across geographic areas. I envision using Web 2.0 to create communities of people that have gone through our services and used our products to actually be talking to each other, with our facilitation, about what works and how to improve. You may have a homeless shelter in Chicago that’s done something with performance measurement to improve an outcome, and maybe that informs a youth tutoring program in Denver.

What are some of your guiding principles?
I think I’ve lived most of my adult life with Daniel Burnham’s idea, ’Make no small plans.’ More recently, I’ve operated under the reality/theory of ’start small, think big and stay focused.’ I’ve always drifted toward challenge rather than comfort. I’m constantly pushing a boulder up a hill to try to make organizations — and the sector as a whole — understand why this is important work. And it’s really hard. But I think that as soon as it gets really easy, I’ll probably be looking for the next thing.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: The Center for What Works

2 Responses

  1. Very important piece. Most business who seek to do ‘good’ work have no idea whether it is effective. The have to learn to assess “EFFECTS” not “EFFORTs at three levels.. Their business, those affected and the greater whole of which it is all apart. I appreciate you push here. Author, The Responsible Business, Jossey Bass 2/2011

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