MIT Sloan professor backs Obama call for “results-oriented” nonprofits

Andrew Wolk attends White House event promoting social innovation programs

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 7, 2009 — An MIT Sloan professor invited to a White House event last week where President Barack Obama unveiled new ways to support grassroots organizations wants to help meet the President's call for “results-oriented” efforts in meeting social goals. Implementing rigorous ways to measure program success, says MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Andrew Wolk, can benefit not only social innovation and communities, but MBA programs and MBA students anxious to combine classroom lessons with socially meaningful work in the field.

“In every talk and speech I give, one theme really resonates,” says Wolk, the founder and CEO of Root Cause, a nonprofit in Cambridge, MA, that seeks to advance social innovation. “That theme is, ‘What works?' There is a very strong desire to move away from unrigorous ways of measuring attempts to deal with social issues and to get much more serious about rewarding things that actually make progress — and to stop investing in those that don't.”

President Obama set that same tone at the June 30 event, where he outlined steps “to find the most promising non-profits in America. We'll examine their data and rigorously evaluate their outcomes,” Obama said. “We'll invest in those with the best results that are most likely to provide a good return on our taxpayer dollars.”

Academic institutions in general and MBA programs in particular are well-positioned to work toward that goal, said Wolk. Universities, he said, are “one of our greatest unleveraged assets in this area. Students, for example, are the equivalent of a massive volunteer workforce that has not been utilized well in the community. But the most significant opportunity may lie in developing ways to take social innovations being developed in academic settings out of the classroom and into communities for the greater good. Students and faculty are working all kinds of interesting technologies and concepts that can help solve serious social problems. We need to find better ways to get that potential into the field, to apply it, and to measure its success.”

In his class at MIT Sloan, Wolk requires students to include performance measurement as they develop social innovation programs. Such measures are routine in the private sector, but not always in the nonprofit world, he said. “Why can a state call for a clear business plan before giving a major industry a lot of money, but make it so relatively easy to apply for grants if you're a nonprofit?”

Wolk said MBAs want to be able to apply their business training to help government and nonprofit groups set and meet performance standards for social programs. “A lot of people in both government and the nonprofit sector are recognizing that they need the help of MBAs,” he said. “MBA programs sometimes don't recognize that a new generation is emerging that cares equally about earning a living and how they do so. Every top MBA program needs to offer a comprehensive package that allows students to have a career and to do greater good.”

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