Working Hard & Working Well: Q&A Interview with David Hunter of Hunter Consulting

In 2009, David Hunter published an article in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal in which he revealed three unpleasant truths about the nonprofit sector: 1)  There is a lack of credible evidence that most nonprofits produce any social value; 2) Direct service nonprofits won’t course correct without external encouragement; and 3) Nonprofits generally abandon their vision, mission, goals, and objectives to meet the demands of their funders.

book-working-hard1 Fast forward, four years later to the release of Hunter’s new book, Working Hard & Working Well: A Practical Guide to Performance Management—a companion to Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason—and you’ll find his no-nonsense insight from over three decades of experience, packaged into a digestible and downloadable book. We’re happy to have David Hunter as part of a diverse network of individuals whose expertise we can draw upon as part of our approach to identify high impact opportunities for donors. In the following interview, David shares lessons learned from his work as Director of Evaluation at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, as well as his passion for classical guitar.

Why did you decide to write this book and how is it different from your previous writings?

DH: I wrote the book because I am disturbed by the dysfunctional nature of the nonprofit sector:

  • by the capricious ways in which money is allocated to organizations with little or no reference to how they are performing;
  • with incredible transaction costs attached (e.g., long and complicated grant applications, massive reporting requirements, and irrelevant data requests);
  • with the expectation that nonprofit organizations can operate successfully with minimal overhead;
  • with equanimity regarding the perpetual quest for new funds that undercut good management;
  • with the veneration of the “innovative” over the effective;
  • with an imperative to “scale up” as a way of showing worth, rather than as a way to expand already demonstrated worth;
  • with a glorification of “vision” and widespread antagonism toward meaningful performance monitoring;
  • with the convenient myth that what’s important often can’t be measured meaningfully;
  • and on and on…

Yet I didn’t want to write a carping book, nor even a finger-pointing book. I wanted to write a book that would make a meaningful contribution to fixing these problems so that the sector could become a reliable source of value to society—which, in this era of scarce resources and growing social inequality, is desperately needed. So the book is resolutely practical, a”sleeves rolled up” approach to providing the methods through which nonprofit organizations can raise their level of performance, and funders can become more incisive in using their grants to build the capacities of organizations to manage for results rather than expecting them to do more with less.

Can you share some of the “lessons learned” from your work at Edna McConnell Clark (and other work over the years)?

DH: The most basic thing I learned is that even established nonprofits that enjoy great reputations often are woefully inept at monitoring what they actually are doing and even more so in tracking results. Hence they cannot learn meaningfully from what they do, can’t make adjustments grounded in empirical evidence. Why? Very few have robust operational frameworks that specify with clarity the domain in which the organization should work and on which it should focus; the results it should be seeing in the short-term and in longer-term timelines; and the methods it is using to achieve those results. Therefore organizations don’t really have any way to decide what to measure and monitor, and, as has been observed, are drowning in a sea of unactionable data. So they can’t monitor what needs to be monitored crisply, therefore they can’t manage with high intentionality, they can’t learn in order to adjust, they can’t adapt and improve—and they can’t deliver what they promise.

Yet—and this is essential—with the right kind of technical assistance, and funders who will support their building the capacities to do all these things well, such organizations can turn themselves around and become incredibly high-performing and effective at getting the results they promise. My book is about how to help them do this.

If you had one piece of advice to give to donors/funders on nonprofit performance management and/or measuring and managing to impact, what would it be?

DH: Funders: Remember that unless your grantees are high-performing, your grants won’t produce the results you are intending. Pay the real costs of getting the results you want. This means investing in what nonprofits need to do in order to build their capacities to be high performers. Don’t skimp on overhead. Make general operating support grants with meaningful developmental milestones as performance expectations. Expect results in organizational development before you expect results for intended beneficiaries.

Direct-Service Grantees: Get clear about why you are in business and what it takes to succeed. Focus, focus, focus. Resist funder efforts to pull you off mission. Push back against funders with high transaction costs and small grants to offer. Learn to say no to grants that, when looked at objectively, weaken your organization while paying for narrow program slices. Look for possibilities to merge back-office functions to achieve economies of scale—which means overcoming institutional narcissism.

Word is that you’re retiring to play guitar? Can you tell us about your musical interests?

DH: I’m a pretty intense amateur classical guitarist. I’ve been studying for 20 years and manage to play about 90 minutes a day. I’d like to double that, and look forward to doing so when I retire next year. My favorite composers to play are Bach, Albeniz, Granados, Villa-Lobos, Tarrega. Also Rodrigo (the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez). And of course the lovely, simple but moving gem known to hardly anybody but guitarists: Sor’s Estudio in B minor.

Anything you’d like to add?

DH: Consider this: America has the lowest rate of escape from poverty in the western industrial world. And government is contracting. Structurally disadvantaged, marginalized, and otherwise weakened populations and groups desperately need a vibrant, robust, high-performing nonprofit sector to have a fair shake in this world. This won’t happen until we take up the challenge of holding foundations and other funders accountable for spending their tax-exempt funds wisely, and how direct service agencies can be held accountable for producing the results they promise.