Nonprofits are hungry for knowledge. We’re feeding them.
It’s no secret that many nonprofits are starved for dollars. But would you believe that they’re just as hungry for knowledge?
We witnessed this firsthand in 2016, when we and our colleagues at the Drucker Institute launched The Drucker Prize, a $100,000 award given to the nonprofit deemed by the judges to be the most innovative in the country. (This year’s contest will open for applications on March 13.)
The inaugural winner, selected from among 495 applicants, was ImproveCareNow, a collaborative community where patients, parents, clinicians and researchers are working together to improve the health and care of young people suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
The Drucker Prize grew out of the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation, which for 25 years had recognized those social-sector organizations that met Drucker’s definition of innovation: “change that creates a new dimension of performance”; were highly effective; and made a meaningful difference in the lives of the people they were serving.
By reconstituting the program as The Drucker Prize, our aim was to continue to honor annually the 501c3 that best demonstrated these qualities — but with an added twist. We also wanted to build a powerful teaching platform, where applicants would take in knowledge and then articulate how their organizations might actually put into practice what they’d just learned.
In addition to weighing an organization’s past performance, we would now also assess its future promise for further leveraging the discipline of innovation.
That was our theory, anyway. As we issued the call for applications last April, we really didn’t know what to expect. Would harried nonprofit leaders give up their most precious resource — their time — to watch video lectures, read excerpts from some of Drucker’s 39 books and answer a series of questions that demanded deep thinking? Even if we had some of the brightest minds in the field today sharing their expertise, alongside Drucker’s timeless wisdom, would applicants feel like they’d heard it all before?
In the end, engagement on the platform exceeded our every expectation. Applicants absolutely devoured the learning, and many told us that they couldn’t wait to do it all again.
“As leaders, especially in the nonprofit sector, we need . . . to reflect, dream and innovate,” said Linda Novick O’Keefe, chief executive of Common Threads, a nonprofit that fights obesity in low-income neighborhoods through education about nutrition and instruction in basic cooking techniques. The Drucker Prize, she added, “afforded me a time to slow down, breathe and be inspired.”
Kathleen Bethel, CEO of the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation, put it this way: “It was like being in school for something that you really knew you needed and wanted to learn. Now that I told others about it, we are all fighting over who gets to do it next year.”
In hindsight, these sorts of reactions shouldn’t have surprised us. Researchers have cited a “chronic under-investment” in social-sector leadership development, with nonprofits spending as little as $29 per employee per year in this area.
“When funders think about what makes a high-performing organization, they need to encourage prioritizing talent development and consider creating opportunities for nonprofit leaders and their staff to learn,” said Mario Morino, chairman of the Morino Institute and co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners. “Continuous learning — within a context of doing — is the key to the kind of continuous innovation that is essential to delivering great results.”
Nonprofit leaders clearly seized on The Drucker Prize, one of a wave of award programs seeking to drive social change, as a way to improve themselves as well as to guide productive conversations with their colleagues about the direction of their organizations.
From the moment nonprofit organizations log on to The Drucker Prize platform, they begin learning. In fact, before they can even begin filling out the application, they are directed to two short videos and readings that teach them some of Peter Drucker’s essential principles on the discipline of innovation — specifically, his seven sources of innovative opportunity and his “do’s and don’ts” for making innovation systematic across an organization.
The first round of the application includes a couple of questions tied to these concepts, along with other queries that allow us to evaluate how well an organization has met Drucker’s definition of innovation. We then winnow the applicant pool to 50 semifinalists.
Offering even this much learning, however, is of real benefit. Indeed, of the more than 200 first-round applicants who responded to our follow-up survey, 92% said that this initial set of teachings would prompt them to explore additional opportunities for innovation in their work. More telling, perhaps, was that 70% (110 responses) of applicants who did not finish the application indicated the same thing.
Some of the first-round applicants told us that they’d passed along the videos and readings to their staff; others said that the material triggered fruitful discussions with their board.
After the first round, leaders of the 50 semifinalist organizations are invited to move on to the next phase. And we mean “leaders.” The nonprofits that are still in contention for The Drucker Prize are asked to attest that someone in decision-making authority (and not just a grant writer) is now completing the remainder of the application.
At this point, the learning experience gets much more intense, with the semifinalists asked to go through five different learning modules, each designed to make them think about not only where their organization is at the moment, but also where it should be going.
For example, last year we included a 15-minute course, led by Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg, on the “Vital Importance of Challenging Assumptions.” Augmenting her video was a Drucker article on “The Theory of the Business” — basic assumptions that every organization makes about its customers and markets, technology and its own strengths and weaknesses. (Yes, nonprofits have a theory of the “business,” too.)
Applicants were then directed to answer several questions related to the topic, which boiled down to this: How well does their organization currently understand its Theory of the Business? And what is at least one thing that they just learned that they intend to apply going forward — and how will they do so?
This same format is repeated for all five modules.
In addition to Osberg, last year’s Drucker Prize learning platform featured Mario Morino, the author of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, on “Fostering the Right Kind of Innovative Culture”; IDEO.org’s Jocelyn Wyatt on “Design Thinking for Social Innovation”; Harvard’s Richard Chait on “The Board’s Role in Fostering Innovation”; and the University of North Carolina’s Dean Fixsen on “The Need for Evidence-Based Implementation of Evidence-Based Innovations.”
This year’s platform will include, among others, Good to Great author Jim Collins and representatives from the Bridgespan Group, Omidyar Group and BoardSource.
When we announce our 10 finalists, all of the learning material is released publicly for any nonprofit to use for free. Over time, we hope to amass a robust resource library for the sector.
Completing the five modules takes several hours, at least. Nonetheless, leaders from each of the 50 semifinalist organizations diligently worked through the material and turned in a final application last year — a stunning 100% completion rate. (Going in, we’d have considered 35 to 40 to be a success.)
Most important, each spelled out how they planned to employ the knowledge that they’d gained. ImproveCareNow, for instance, said the module with Richard Chait had caused it to examine whether the organization needed new board members who could help navigate the rapidly changing healthcare landscape. Based on Dean Fixen’s teachings, ImproveCareNow also pledged to look at ways to improve its measurement of real-time impact. And Jocelyn Wyatt’s reflections prompted the organization to mull whether it was adequately meeting the needs of all of those in its network.
It remains unknown just how much ImproveCareNow or any of the other semifinalists have followed through so far. We are preparing a longer-range study to gauge whether the learning has led to actual behavior change.
Meanwhile, though, what is undeniable is that the sector is ravenous to learn, with leaders obviously attuned to a reality that Drucker himself highlighted: “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”