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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.

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Morino's book is free and self-published. He and his staff ship boxes of it weekly.

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"Leap of Reason" "has been an important book in the life of our school," Salza says. "[Morino will] say very modestly, 'Well, it's not that great a book, but the timing is right.' But I think it is a great book because he timed it right – and the message is right."

In his book, Morino decries dysfunctional boards, nonprofit groups that won't ask tough questions, and nonprofits that substitute feel-good anecdotes for hard data. "When you get down to it, money doesn't go to the best organizations. It never has," Morino says.

He wants to change that – immediately.

Nonprofit groups are facing shrinking budgets and growing needs. There's no time for incremental change, he says.

Morino is "absolutely right on the money when it comes to the changing realities of not-for-profit work," says Bob Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., who worked with Morino at VPP from 1999 to 2002 and now sits on its board. "The few that will thrive in this environment will be the ones that deliver significantly better outcomes for more people for less cost."

The book bluntly assesses charitable groups. In the opening, Morino quotes Yogi Berra: "We're lost, but we're making good time."

It isn't aimed, however, at small nonprofits or civic-minded individuals, Morino says. "They represent the strongest core of philanthropy in the US. You don't want to touch that." He likens these folks to his long-ago neighbors in Cleveland, where, "if somebody's building a garage, everyone helped build the garage."

Of the 1.5 million nonprofit groups in the US, 40,000 have budgets of more than $1 million, according to Bridgespan. They are the targets of "Leap of Reason."

When they argue they can't afford data-tracking, Morino counters: "Thinking through what you're doing does not cost money."

Patrick Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages, which serves 18,000 children who are either in foster homes or the juvenile justice system in 12 states, says that when it began tracking data in the late 1980s, it found "our hypothesis was terribly incorrect."

Youth Villages had thought that removing children from troubled family situations and letting them experience a stable home was the solution. Instead, he says, it had little impact.

The nonprofit had to start over, Mr. Lawler says. "Instead of raising other people's children, we had to focus on helping those families," he says. Now the nonprofit tries to keep children in their own homes whenever possible. Today, 80 percent of the children Youth Villages serves are at home, in school, and not in trouble with the law – up from 50 percent before it started tracking data, Lawler says.

"Are we doing what we say we're going to do?" That's the question any nonprofit group should answer honestly, Morino says.

"A lot of people are committed, but I put him in the 1 percent category," says Steve Denning, chairman of General Atlantic, a private equity investment company based in New York, who has known Morino since 1982 and helped finance his company. "He had that heart of gold even in the business world."

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