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Editors’ note: “The Surprising Alchemy of Passion and Science” is the transcript of a speech given by Lissette Rodriguez of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation at the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence’s tenth annual conference, “Setting the Standard: Operational Excellence for the New Nonprofit Sector,” which took place on April 30, 2015. Please visit www.emcf.org and join EMCF’s mailing list if you are interested in staying connected with PropelNext and learning about new resources. This article is from the summer 2015 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly—“Nimble Nonprofits: The Land of the Frugal Visionary.” 


We all come to this work with a passion for improving lives. It drives us to get up early, stay late, and work through lunch. We do it even when the challenges are great and the rewards are tough to reach. (And let’s face it—we did not get into this business for the money!) We also work at a relentless pace that does not leave much time for rest or reflection—because the need usually outpaces the resources we have at our disposal. So passion is our fuel, and it’s what has made the third sector a robust part of our communities.

A few weeks ago I was visiting an organization working just outside of a major U.S. city. Working with poor, mostly migrant families to provide social, counseling, and educational services, this organization was living proof of what passion can accomplish in an underserved and under-resourced community. Through sheer grit and determination, the board and executive director have built a $2 million agency in a place with little funding, infrastructure, or services—but, of course, great need. Passion helped that organization start and get to where it is today. But will it be enough to get to the next level?

Over the last few years I have focused on this very question: How do organizations and leaders harness their passion for justice, love of people and communities, and commitment to better our world while increasing their understanding of whether and how they are having an impact? I believe science and measurement can help us and can do so in the context of the passion that drives us. It can be done without turning our organizations into soulless assembly-line enterprises. It can happen without sacrificing the deep feeling of mission that often feeds personal and organizational purpose and meaning. It takes a delicate balance of trust in what we know and the recognition of what we don’t yet understand, and it takes a deep appreciation for the seen and the unseen and the measured and the intuitive, giving each its proper place and due.

I am an unlikely convert to this work. For twelve years at YouthBuild I saw young people who had dropped out of high school arriving at the doors of local programs with many disappointments, lack of support, and failures weighing them down. They were facing tough odds; but they were also young, full of promise, and, with the right supports, ready to take advantage of opportunities. These youth had no time to waste, and neither did the adults seeking to support them. The goal was to make every minute count if participants were to emerge with better prospects for the future.

By the time I arrived at the organization, YouthBuild leaders had spent years on program design and implementation. They’d also listened deeply to participants to calibrate the approach. But we still had many questions about how best to carry out certain elements of the program to make the greatest difference in preparing young adults for a healthy and self-sustaining life. We had some clues, but we needed more information to get better. It was at YouthBuild where I developed a sense of urgency for understanding how we might better use data to make the nine program months really count.

Prior to this, I had often seen myself squarely in the passion camp. I thought my side was incompatible with the data nerds. Either you run an organization driven by passion or you’re a bean counter. Either your workplace is a place where individuals are unique or you run a nonprofit as a heartless business that crunches numbers, drives toward maximum efficiency, and takes human connection out of the equation.

I was caught up in a false dichotomy: do you care about odds or do you care about people?

But that isn’t the way I see it today. I’ve learned that you can improve the odds and make a real difference in people’s lives.

I believe we can all harness data to empower ourselves and our organizations to make the most of our passion. Your passion is what brought you to this kind of work; it’s what gets you out of bed each morning, and it may have gotten you through more than one sleepless night when you wondered if your organization was going to make payroll. You need it, and the world needs it as well. But passion is not enough if you want to truly understand whether and how you are making a difference.

All of us who have worked with families in crisis or struggling communities have countless anecdotes to illustrate the ways in which we’ve helped people, neighborhoods, and organizations. These stories are important because they bring to life how our work is making a difference in the lives of individuals. But beyond these stories, do we truly know how we are doing with the groups of people that we reach through our organizations? How can we know we are doin