Capacity for Impact: What McKinsey and Milo Both Know

Movie still from The Phantom Tollbooth, via Ugo

Did you know that this year is the 50th anniversary of the classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth? I read a lot and I worked for 5 years making books for the largest trade publisher in the world, but I’ll admit that I haven’t read Tollbooth – I saw the classic movie as a kid, and its timeless messages have stayed with me all these years. Here’s the summary: a bored little boy named Milo is set on a quest to restore peace and alliance between the divided brothers of numbers-only Digitopolis and words-only Dictionopolis by rescuing the banished sisters Rhyme and Reason, who were made prisoners in the Castle in the Air for their insistence that numbers and letters are equally important. The songs and animation are priceless (I just convinced myself to go on to Amazon to get the DVD).

Why am I even bringing this up? Well, haven’t I been talking all along about how Impact Assessment can’t just be numbers and can’t just be stories? Like Milo, Impact Assessment Model builders and users must find a way to unite words and numbers in order to examine the actions and impact of mission-driven organizations and CSR programs, so that we can always be improving.

That is why I was so excited to see the McKinsey Capacity Assessment Grid. I found out about it through a post on TRASI that announced a crowdsourcing opportunity to help build a “better, more accessible Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT),” which McKinsey and Venture Philanthropy Partners developed ten years ago in order to “help nonprofits better assess their operational capacity and identify areas that need improvement.” Assessing capacity doesn’t quite sound like assessing impact, although assessing impact does include assessing capacity. Did that make sense? Either way, the OCAT is a great example of a tool meant to improve the work of a mission-driven organization. That is the same goal as an SIA, so we can look to the tool as a model.

The grid has written descriptions for different areas of organizational capacity (strategy, organizational skills, human resources) and at different levels of capacity for each (1=clear need for increased capacity, through 4=high level of capacity in place). Organizations can score themselves to better understand where they are currently, and they can look ahead to where they want to be. If we need to put numbers to something, this is an interesting way to do it. I haven’t seen a rating system that actually tries to describe impact on a scale between something like “clear need for improved impact,” “basic level/non-transformational impact,” “moderate level of impact,” and “transformational impact.” But I like that way of thinking – we might be on to something here.

Here are some of the parts of the OCAT grid I picked out that I thought had the most relevance to a potential impact assessment tool. Let me know what you think – can we use this model to create an impact assessment tool? You can also visit the McKinsey website to view the full OCAT, and take a survey to add your opinions and suggestions of how version 2.0 can be made even better.


Even the Best Need a Coach

Photo via Cohen’s Corner Sports blog, by Michael Cohen

I read The New Yorker like some people read the bible. I confess that I don’t often read the fiction section, and many times skip over the Talk of the Town. The Food and Style special editions don’t really do it for me either. But for the most part, I try to read every single article and glance at every cartoon. The diversity of subjects covered by the magazine really appeals to me and gives me knowledge and insights I never would have imagined. And, admittedly appealingly for me, many of the authors of the articles tend to write from a slightly left-of-center perspective. But political leanings many times don’t even appear in articles if the topic at hand doesn’t call for it. Like in this one that I found had a really great message for Social Impact Assessment.

Atul Gawande writes in his article, Personal Best, that everyone can use a coach. Professional athletes, singers, surgeons, and he writes more in depth about the benefits of our nation’s teachers having access to coaching. Social Impact Assessment is kind of like coaching for anyone working towards a mission. Many mission-driven organizations have taken on theories of change, which really jives well with coaching – both mean acknowledging from the onset that none of us (or our processes) are perfect and that we must always be evaluating ourselves, our actions, and our impact to continuously be improving upon all of these.

Data and assessments can help by giving us a different perspective on the ways in which we are trying to positively impact the world. They can “coach” us in the sense that when we aren’t sure what is or isn’t working, they can guide us in our self-evaluation. But just as individual human coaches can be better suited as coaches in different sectors or for different personalities and working styles, there is not one overarching model of Social Impact Assessment that can fit each individual organization. Coaching is about collaboration, and a willingness to constantly learn and improve. The same can be said for Social Impact Assessment.

Must Be This Tall To Ride: Small Non-Profits and Social Impact Assessment

Stoned Fire concert at Crash Mansion, via Ben Goodman Presents and Monster Market Place

My neck and shoulders are still killing me two days after I head-banged the night away at the most righteous and awesome Rock Asylum show at the Hiro Ballroom at the Maritime Hotel in New York City. I’ll admit that I went to the show purely to see the band Stoned Fire play (they killed it, just like at all their concerts, go get their tunes), but I was pleasantly surprised to also hear the other bands play and to knock my head around to them, too. The Z Brothers are the front men of the band Z02 (who also rocked the house with their great songs and energy), as well as the leaders behind Rock Asylum, which is a status-pending 501(c)(3) non-profit organization “that provides free rock concerts to schools around the country,” and also aims to develop music-related curriculum that can be taught in schools. Brother Paulie Z is clearly passionate about the crisis in American schools cutting music and arts education, and treating these areas of learning as “expendable.” But the message behind Rock Asylum is that the opposite is true: music and arts education are integral to the holistic learning experience we should be offering students so that they grow up to be much more well-rounded human beings – not to mention that some students actually perform better socially and academically when taught through arts and music.

But the benefits can be so intangible as to challenge conventional methods of social impact assessment (if such a thing as a “conventional” method of SIA exists). If Rock Asylum puts on a show in an elementary school, how are they to measure and document the affect of that show on the students, or on the school at large? How can they effectively examine their shows to know what is working and what isn’t? Is this level of detail even necessary for a non-profit such as this one? I think the answer is yes, but it is probably a hard yes to hear, especially for a musician who doesn’t need any measurements or analysis to know in their hearts that having music in schools has a positive social impact. But it is also something incredibly hard for a small, potentially struggling-to-grow non-profit organization to hear. Organizations of this size and situation usually need to use all of their capacity to simply go about their business – in this case, putting on concerts for kids, and raising money to do so through benefit concerts that are definitely more for adults. But there is no size minimum for an organization to benefit from the implementation of a well-designed impact assessment plan. Such a plan and SIA model would help Rock Asylum develop their curriculum and scale their work, but more importantly, it would help them to actually improve their content and delivery so as to have the strongest positive social impact possible for the kids they reach. And isn’t that the core of this work? That is why at the core of any organization, large or small, there needs to be a commitment to social impact assessment, and it should be there from the beginning. Mark Hecker talked about this very intelligently in my interview with him about the commitment to social impact assessment that Reach, Incorporated has built into its foundations as a small (but quickly growing) non-profit organization, and why it is critical.

I’ve got a few ideas of my own for how Rock Asylum could measure and assess their social impact, but I think this organization is a great example of the kind of people that are desperately needed to apply their creative thinking to the issue of how to measure mission-driven actions. The positive social impact of a rock concert is something that requires tons of creative thinking about how to best model a social impact assessment plan, and I would love to see how these musicians might approach this challenge. By the way, if anyone from the organization finds their way to reading this, feel free to email me at to talk more about social impact assessment, or if you have some extra tickets to the next Stoned Fire or Z02 concert. Just kidding about that second part 🙂

So all you leaders of small non-profits and mission-driven organizations out there – don’t think you’re organization is too small for a social impact assessment plan, it is critical to your positive social impact and your mission!




Shared Value Can Also Really Mean Sharing

Me reading The Lorax to kids at an Everybody Wins! event

It seems that respectable institutions like Harvard University and The New York Times have found their way to presenting what most of us have known for a while: profit-making and addressing social issues can and should go hand in hand. As a recent Fast Company article called Shared Value Capitalism: A Socially Responsible Way To Improve Quality And Retain Customers recounts, major companies (mainly high-tech ones) are aligning their business processes, products, and/or services in ways that benefit the company and society at the same time. This “new” form of capitalism, says columnist Steve Lohr, is “more sophisticated” because it considers “the ability to address societal ills [as] integral to profit maximization instead of treated outside [of] the profit model.” What shocking revelations! No, all sarcasm aside, I think it is a given to most of us on the level that the future of business is one in which the maximizations of profit, environment, and society are equally distributed across core business values and activities.

All of the examples from the article start with the company and move out into the community, but I have an example of how to start in the community and bring the value back to the company, which also is an answer to the question posed by the author of the article: “How can companies not in the everyday business of technology pursue shared value?”

I worked in the book publishing industry for five years, at the largest trade book publisher in the world. My employer was very charitable and employee volunteerism was encouraged, and this is how I got involved with a wonderful nonprofit called Everybody Wins!. This organization is based on the belief that children who love to read are more likely to read, which in turn helps them be more engaged and perform better in school, and to eventually have more success in life. The partnership between this nonprofit and a large publishing company is obviously a mutually beneficial one. Everybody Wins! relies on donations to stock its libraries with books for children to read. The publishing industry relies on children asking their parents to buy them books and growing up to be adults who read and, of course, buy books for themselves. By sharing stakeholders, products, time, and money with each other, the large for-profit and the small non-profit come together with a symbiosis that has positive social and economic impact. Now there’s some shared value!

I’ve written previously about how I believe Everybody Wins! needs to step up its Social Impact Assessment game. Maybe if they did, publishers would invest even more. Shared value such as this needs to be built into Social Impact Assessment. But, in my opinion, this example shows that shared value isn’t just about big companies bringing their products, services, technologies, and knowledge to society through the triple bottom line. Society has everything to offer for-profit organizations – people are the users of what companies create and distribute, and as with publishers and readers, companies need to take care of their customers, even their future ones. Eventually, I hope the Social Impact Assessment reports of Random House (it was obvious that that was the company, right?) and Everybody Wins! are intertwined, at least in some sections. Partnerships between organizations such as these are at the heart of at least one part of what Shared Value is supposed to accomplish: positive social impact. By the same reasoning, partnerships are integral to Social Impact Assessment. I’ll take a slight liberty with the final line from the Fast Company article: “Shared value is not just a series of empty words or a catchy phrase. Experience is already proving that when it is pursued the right way, [Everybody Wins!]”

Interview with Mark Hecker of Reach, Incorporated

Thanks everyone for your patience, I’m so excited that my first post back after a brief hiatus is my interview with Mark Hecker, Founder and Executive Director of Reach, Incorporated. In short, Reach is a DC-based nonprofit that hires youth to tutor and mentor other youth. I’ll let him tell you about himself and how Reach came to be:

I got in touch with Mark because we had both read Mario Morino’s eBook Leap of Reason (see my half-way and finished book reviews). In fact, Mark thought so much of the book that he built part of it into Reach’s hiring process! I asked Mark about why he did this:

This is a pretty good example of how Mark has built Social Impact Assessment into the DNA of his organization. But something that is really great about Mark is that he doesn’t just walk to the beat of the Social Impact Assessment drum – he actually has a unique and important point of view on the potential dangers and pitfalls of poorly applied impact assessment:

Mark has a deep understanding of Impact Assessment, especially for the Education sector. He makes the astute point that since there isn’t really an established method of measuring many of the aspects of impact that Mark says (and I agree) are just as not valued enough by funders and even by society at large.

We talked about a lot of great things, which I broke down into a few more clips. They are short but definitely worth watching. We talk about the big questions – the who, what, why, and how of Social Impact Assessment. Mark explains his investment in his newest employee who will be focusing on measurement and predictive data. You’ll also hear Mark tell some of the inspiring and inspirational ways that Reach Incorporated is reaching kids and having positive impact right now in Washington, D.C. Please make sure to visit their website. And if you are short for time, make sure to scroll down and watch the last clip from the interview.

A huge THANK YOU to Mark Hecker for taking time out of his busy schedule and important job to talk with me about his organization and Social Impact Assessment.

Listen up to what’s in this next one – Social Impact Assessment is done for  a purpose: “to improve the product” – and in this case, the product is the positive impact we are having on the world, the lives we are improving.

Time Out!


Hi everyone! I just needed to call a quick TIME OUT! My day job is being so demanding right now that I’m having trouble finding the quality time I need to write these posts. Please check back in 5-7 days, I have tons of great new things to write about and share with you!


Thanks for being patient 🙂



Philosophy and Social Impact Assessment

Image via Univ. of Chicago Philosophy Department

After writing my previous post about why we measure, I had to take a step back to see the big picture. As part of my new job, I’ve been plunged into hours of work inside excel spreadsheets, information management systems, and databases galore. I had to separate myself from my computer screen briefly to consider how my actions were helping to accomplish the mission of my organization (to close the education gap and ensure educational equity in America). Swimming in my data, I felt far from being part of the solution. But today I feel awesome about what I’m doing. Why? Because of two seemingly disparate, but truly connected, things.

First, I have been reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou using the Kindle app on my iPhone, and I came to a passage that really resonated with me: “Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness-impossible in any feeling whatsoever-of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point-to love all men.” I mention that platform and device that brought me to this passage because I was able to see that 11 other readers of this tough philosophy text had also highlighted this very passage – I wasn’t the only one who was feeling it. The best part of this passage for me is the ultimate possibility it offers up: that it is indeed possible to love all people. Buber may have called this a “dreadful point” for several reasons. It would be dreadful to feel love for a person who does bad things and hurts others. It would also be dreadful to know that many of the people you love around the world are suffering constantly, every moment someone is suffering. But to be involved in any kind of work that aims to have positive social impact is truly an expression of love (if you don’t like the use of the word love here, substitute the word “empathy” for it instead).

The second thing that brought me out of my funk was reading about a new website, EmotionalBagCheck, which helps promote a challenging aspect of love (empathy): how to feel it for a total stranger who you have never seen and never will. When you go to the site you get two options: lay down your baggage, or help someone else carry theirs. I was feeling very connected to strangers when I discovered the site, so I chose to carry. I was delivered a message that someone out there had written about the tough time they were going through. Do to a browser error, I ended up cycling through a few of these, and was amazed at how I was able to relate to many of the feelings I read about. I was then prompted to choose a song to send to the person who wrote their “baggage,” something that would help me get through if I was in the same situation or felt the same way. I settled on sending a song to a person who wrote about uncertainty of their future career and love life and fear of stagnation. I chose “My First Song,” by Jay-Z, which I wrote helps me with motivation and keeping the fire under my feet. After sending the song and a note, I got a thank you screen that included the message “You’ve probably made someone’s day a little better.” I felt like this was love (empathy) at work.

Is it necessary to measure, track, and report on love (empathy)? I don’t think so, although I hope we are all always trying to increase this in our lives. But love is so passionate and so overwhelming that it behooves us to watch our steps, and to make sure that our actions match our intentions. That is where my excel spreadsheets and terabytes of data come into play. My take-away for the day is this: Love and empathize as much and as often as possible, and take action to show that love and empathy. When people come together in an organization or company to do this, Social Impact Assessment can help make sure that the passion is optimally directed towards the positive.

Thanks to everyone that read this post – this was an important one to me. I hope I hear your opinions on it as well! Stay connected 🙂