Though the “bread and butter” work of Pew’s Planning and Evaluation unit is in assessing and strengthening the design of program strategies, we also play an institutional role in raising “destination questions”— understanding where Pew wants to be in the next decade or so. This is an ongoing process, of course, since we are constantly reflecting on the type of organization we are building.
One helpful way to start the discussion is by recognizing the values we appreciate in other organizations, whether in the private, nonprofit or government sectors. When we asked Pew’s senior management team what they admired about organizations they held in high regard, six characteristics emerged.
Mission-Driven but Flexible
The management team admired organizations that clearly articulate their long-term missions and maintain this focus despite changes in the environment in which they operate. Such organizations concentrate on their core goals and are also able to adjust their approaches to meet new circumstances.
This line of thought suggests that, even though our institution, as a result of becoming a public charity, has become more flexible in how we work, there must be a continuing, strong commitment to Pew’s core mandate—to develop fact-based solutions to improve society.
Rigorous and Results-Driven
The directors also highlighted organizations that are rigorous in their approach and committed to evidencebased outcomes. Such organizations never let the quality of their work wane or waste time on unproductive lines of work (they avoid “mission creep”). They tend to limit the number of projects they undertake, focusing on a few ripe issues that they can approach on multiple fronts.
This finding is a useful reminder to any organization of the need to periodically review its portfolio to see if it is spreading itself too thin.
Risk-Taking and Entrepreneurial
Being rigorous, however, does not mean playing it safe. The management team noted many organizations that have succeeded by going against conventional wisdom. In particular, the directors admired organizations that took big chances in the pursuit of big returns as well as those adept at identifying unoccupied niches. Pew focuses on measurable results within set time periods, yet must remain open to creative thinking that challenges the status quo.
Effective in Communications
There is no substitute for positive results. Organizations that rise to the top and stay there perform consistently, year after year.
But how key audiences perceive an organization can be affected by savvy communications, too. The team admired companies that, in addition to having a good product, also project an image of quality. Although the effect of marketing is clear and well documented in the for-profit context, the need to cultivate and manage an organizational image is also critical in our sector, as a positive external reputation strengthens all of our initiatives.
Open to Creative Partnerships
A common theme was the ability to have influence beyond the immediate reach of the institution. One way to build influence is through the intelligent and judicious use of creative partnerships, relationships that benefit all parties.
But successfully pursuing such joint ventures requires taking the time to define shared goals, being clear as to respective roles and regularly monitoring the progress of the work. These lessons are particularly germane to Pew, as the problems we address invariably require the resources and support of other groups.
The directors also highlighted organizations that are able to recruit and retain the best people, while ensuring oversight and accountability at all levels. As Pew grows and becomes more complex, we must give staff the running room they need to be successful within an organizational framework that provides guidance and stresses accountability.
Our review of admired organizations concludes that one must be willing to challenge conventional thought. Although Pew has been involved in notable successes, we recognize the need to adjust our approach to meet new challenges. Such a process preserves the core strengths that have brought us to this point, such as the institution’s commitment to rigorous planning and assessment, and encourages us to be more nimble and flexible, capable of recognizing and pursuing opportunities when they arise.
Michael Dahl, general counsel at Pew, was the managing director of Planning and Evaluation when this exercise was conducted. Lester Baxter is deputy director of Evaluation.