Changing the world by the number

Meet Jason Saul, Founder and CEO of Mission Measurement

Jason Saul claims that anything can be measured—even doing good, giving back and the often-intangible job of changing the world, or creating it. “God made the Earth in six days, and rested on the seventh,” he’s fond of saying. “So even God had a benchmark for success: six days.” In other words, everything is quantifiable.

As CEO of Mission Measurement, a Chicago-based consulting firm that generates data to improve the non-profit sector, Jason is in the numbers business. He’s also in the business of world change, helping charities drive results by holding their operations and outcomes to higher standards.

At Mission Measurement, Jason pushes non-profits to define and prove success with metrics, margins and plans for growth. He’s the reason WE Schools discovered that 80% of alumni still volunteer—an average of 150 hours—after completing the service-learning program. An overwhelming majority (90%) believe they are responsible for addressing social issues. These metrics help prove that the mission worked: to empower youth to become agents of social change.

Jason and his team have helped WE track its investments, so to speak. Why not get the most return on doing good in the form of measured social impact?

Jason and his team also independently surveyed and studied WE staff—more than 80% said their role with the organization prompted them to improve problem-solving skills (85%); their ability to multitask (85%); and their networking skills (86%). Even more—90%—had improved communication skills. Having scientifically sampled a wide range of staff, he was the perfect person to speak to the WE experience.

A long-time external mentor for WE’s executive team, Jason is also an author, and faculty member at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where he teaches corporate social responsibility and non-profit management. He holds a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, an M.P.P. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a B.A. in Government and French Literature from Cornell University.

WE talked to Jason about our mission, and about measuring world change.

Question and answer

How have WE and Mission Measurement been working together?

Years ago, I first sat down with a bunch of young, unlikely heroes who had the most consummate professionalism, extreme dedication and the most flawless quality in their work product I’ve ever seen at a charity. The most impressive thing about the organization is the calibre of people and the strength of their commitment to working for a cause.

We helped them ask why they were undertaking certain projects; set up measures to determine if they are being effective; established a framework for determining what impact they are trying to produce. We have helped the organization become more outcome-driven and helped the organization “sell” those outcomes to the market, if you will.

Measuring outcomes today is a commodity. [Corporate] sponsorship used to be emotion-driven, but today they are looking to buy outcomes. They are looking to move the needle on big issues.

For the donor, if you have a choice between supporting a charity that is helping kids play basketball after school and supporting another charity that is transforming kids’ lives for the next 40 years, you can make your own choice about which one is more compelling to you.

What makes WE different?

The WE team deserves full credit for the outcomes the organization is producing. Outcomes are changes in status or behavior of a kid, more than just a change in activity.

The breadth and reach of how many kids around the world are being impacted by WE, just this one organization, is impressive. Most organizations produce fairly basic outcomes: make a kid more aware of nutrition, help a homeless person find shelter. WE is aiming for very high-level outcomes. They are trying to transform a kid’s life.

WE has that high-level impact. WE Schools, for instance, is offering an outcome that’s going to make your kid a better student, more likely to get into college, more likely to vote, get a better job, become a better leader, become more committed, and become passionate and effective human beings. We have a highly reinforced set of data that proves these kids are prepared for college.

But I’m not just talking about the domestic programming. I’ve been to Kenya to see and study the WE Villages model and the health clinic that’s been built there. All the programs are thought out and developed over years to maximize impact.

For stakeholders, the question is: Does the organization have an impact? Clearly the data shows that it does. WE has grown to a global brand, recognized all over the world, that only stands for positive things and connects with a huge audience.

WE is both a charity (WE Charity) and a social enterprise (ME to WE). How does that help drive the mission?

What’s unique about WE is the symbiotic relationship between the charity and the social enterprise. Most charities are at a disadvantage, because they don’t have their own internal economic engine, so they have to rely on third parties to fund their work. This creates a dependency on external funding, which can subordinate the mission of the organization to the donor or funder’s mission. This enterprise has its own recharging battery; they can recharge their own funding.

WE has an economic engine that is mission-driven. ME to WE has its own social mission, which is to bring people abroad and bond as a family or company [through ME to WE Trips], and to learn about the needs of the international community. It also helps consumers make better choices [with its products, like Artisans]. A lot of organizations try to replicate this, so they end up selling T-shirts, but it has nothing to do with the mission and can end up perverting the mission or steering the mission off course.

What struck you most about measuring WE’s outcomes? What’s the secret sauce>

I’m most impressed by the clarity and simplicity of the vision to transform youth and create agents of change.

WE has raised the bar from merely proving that they’re effective [to] showing how they are effective and to what extent. Not just effective but efficient. We have yet to prove this, but I want to get there very soon, and I would predict the WE family is producing outcomes at a lower cost-per-outcome than anybody else.

Look at the entire budget of the organization, divided by the total number of kids getting positive outcomes, and that is effectively your cost-per-outcome.

With WE Day and the WE Day app, the ability to leverage schools through WE Schools, you have built a very scalable platform and it’s much less expensive and much higher touch. There are a lot of organizations that are aiming at impacting youth. The art of it is: what levers do you pull to produce those outcomes and how efficient are you in producing those outcomes?

I think that is the hidden secret of the organization. Everyone gets excited about WE Day speakers and celebrities, but it’s the low cost-per-outcome that is probably the most fascinating and compelling aspect.

When studying WE, what have you observed about its culture and staff?

WE has always been a place where you start your career, but now it’s also a place where you can have a satisfying career path for the long-term. What I do know is that WE will always be a place for social entrepreneurs and self-starters. Through our staff surveys and research, we know those with initiative and flexibility do very well at WE.

This interview has been condensed and edited.