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Difference Maker

A little book has a big impact on how to run a charity

Mario Morino wrote a little book that's had a big effect – urging nonprofit groups to prove that they're really doing what they say they're doing.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2012



Rocky River, Ohio

Plenty of people have endured attending an unproductive meeting. After he sat through three of them in a single day, philanthropist Mario Morino decided to write a book.

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"It was late 2009.... In each meeting, I kept getting a little more aggravated," recalls Mr. Morino in his office in Rocky River, Ohio, outside Cleveland. At each, a board was discussing how it would assess its nonprofit group. The problem? "There wasn't a nonprofit executive in the room," he says.

Morino, who owned his own software development business in the 1980s before setting up the Morino Institute and later Venture Philanthropy Partners, went home and fired off one e-mail, then another. After a fourth, he had what became the core of his book, "Leap of Reason," which has more than 40,000 copies in circulation so far – an impressive number for a book about the rarefied topic of nonprofit management.

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"It has hit a nerve," Morino says. "It has hit a really interesting nerve."

While the subject of "Leap of Reason" is "managing to outcomes" – a topic that sounds almost as exciting as "101 uses for duct tape" – the book is, in fact, a bracing call to arms. In an era of tight funding, Morino argues, nonprofits – such as charities and service organizations promoting the public good – need to prove that they are doing what they say they are doing.

Nonprofit groups "really have to go through a transformation, whether we want to or not, if we want to have a society left," says Morino, whose Venture Philanthropy Partners invests in groups in the Washington, D.C., area that serve low-income children. (Groups can't apply to VPP for grants; VPP seeks out groups it judges to be most effective.)

While he's not a household name like some other wealthy philanthropists, Morino has reportedly given away $40 million of his own money. And he's an effective agent of social change, say nonprofit leaders.

"He's been almost a kind of prophet in the field," says Billy Shore, chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, which is working to end childhood hunger in the United States by 2015.

Morino didn't just make a lot of money in business, start a nonprofit, and write a book about it, Mr. Shore says. "He worked for years and years … and then wrote about it. He brings a ton of credibility."

Morino sits on the board of the Lawrence School in Cleveland, which helps children with learning difficulties. The headmaster, Lou Salza, calls Morino his "intellectual godfather."

"This is high-stakes, high-risk education," Mr. Salza says. "Many of these students aren't going to get another chance. We need to know that what we're doing works."

To that end, the school performs a weekly checkup on each student, which parents can track on the Web. Teachers use the data to make sure each child is making progress, and adjust the curriculum as needed.

Salza, who took over in 2007, began implementing the kind of data-driven changes Morino advocates in 2008. "Mario's been enormously important in the transformation of our school from a good school to a much better school," he says. "When he sees that people are really trying to get this right and trying to do better on behalf of the children they serve, he pulls out all the stops to help them."

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