An interview of Peter Frumkin
By Adam Roth-Saks
Peter Frumkin, PhD is Professor of Social Policy & Practice, Faculty Director of the Center for Social Impact Strategy, and holds the Mindy and Andrew Heyer Chair in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice. His research and teaching focus on philanthropy, nonprofit management, and social entrepreneurship. Among his many publications, The Strategic Management of Charter Schools (Harvard 2011), which Frumkin co-authored with Bruno Manno and Nell Edgington, develops a systematic way of thinking about and handling the many management challenges associated with starting and sustaining a charter school.
Adam Roth-Saks is the Administrative Director of the MS in Nonprofit Leadership and the Finance Manager of the Center for Social Impact Strategy. He is currently pursuing his EdD with a concentration in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
When it comes to charter, independent, and religious schools, there are some commonalities both between those schools and across the education sector. The guiding principle is one of educating and supporting students, resource constraints are ever-present, and stakeholders have a huge voice. At the same time, charter, independent, and religious school leaders often have to balance the need to run their schools as educational institutions and businesses at the same time. They are really running nonprofits and need more than just educational knowledge, they need management and strategy. In speaking with Dr. Peter Frumkin, Faculty Director of the Center for Social Impact Strategy (CSIS), I had the chance to explore how the Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy (SIS) is not just a great program for social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, and change makers looking to create greater impact through their work, but also education leaders who may not consider executive programs outside of the education sector. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Adam Roth-Saks: Why do these educational leaders need this entrepreneurial mindset?
Peter Frumkin: Well, I wouldn’t say this is an entrepreneurial mindset, I think what they need is a grounding and a focus on strategy and management, because it’s very easy to be absorbed into the substance and the challenge of educating children and young people. But to do that well, you have to manage the resources effectively and the assumption I’m operating under is that the vast majority of people are devoting more time and effort just because of the nature of the work and the commitment to the education side of the equation and less to the management or strategy side. And so the executive program is going to be able to reach educators in private schools and charter schools who want to challenge themselves to become better managers and better stewards of their organizations.
How can we do that? We can give them tools, we can give them frameworks, we can give them the equipment. They need to look at their work in a fresh way that then translates into operational improvement and ultimately better performance. These educational institutions have a management strategy imperative buried in them, and the SIS program is designed, I think, well designed to help them meet that challenge, get better at managing. Get better at the basic 101 of leading a social purpose, nonprofit, social impact organization.
ARS: Are you familiar with the analogy of the dance floor and the balcony. The idea that a leader has to understand what’s happening on the dance floor. But sometimes, in order to understand that you have to remove yourself from it and go up on the balcony, is that sort of the management piece that you feel like they need?
PF: Yeah, I think that’s fair. You know, in the course of working with so many charter schools, I found that they were much, much deeper into the curriculum design and teaching aspect of school management, and much less in the kind of financial and personnel and mission management side. And so that’s that’s why, I think, yeah, you do need sometimes to step away from the educational component, put yourself into a context as broader so that you can look at problems more generally, you know, and then and then bring them back to your work in schools.
So I I think that analogy is pretty good. I don’t like necessarily, the idea of being aloof and above it all, but the idea of stepping outside of your comfort zone of your little world in which you talk education, talk with Charter school people at Charter School conferences or independent school conferences. That’s the goal of the executive program is that you’d learn more if you get outside of your professional kind of narrow niche.
AR: Why is the executive program such a good fit for these leaders specifically to get outside of their niche
PF: Because it’ll expose them to this full range of people all around the country all around the world who are pursuing visions of social impact and what they’ll find is even if it’s someone from far away pursuing something in a completely different subsector, they’ll find a commonality and a shared purpose, which is, how do you get a mission-based organization to perform at as high as level as possible and we found over the many, many years is that when we offer executive education programs that are inter-sector and non-industry specific, those programs tend to be deeper and better learning experiences. Whenever we did a company or sector specific program, we couldn’t get them out of their chatter of their kind of language or they’re in locked into their kind of mindset, so that’s the value of meeting new people. Seeing your problems as universal and then being able to work with a fresh approach, because you’re dealing with people or seeing multiple different perspectives to solve those problems.
AR: what do you feel are some of the tools and frameworks that will help in the education sector?
PF: We’re going to work on everything from how to make a board perform well to how to measure performance, how to design for impact. I would say there are at least 20 different tools that people will learn over the course of the whole program that applies to the full range of activities that they’re going to be involved with. So it’s not a narrow program where you spend 4 weeks just studying performance measurement or 4 weeks just on governance. It’s long enough that it covers a whole range of social impact challenges.
AR: What do you see as the biggest organizational challenges that charter school leaders, specifically or educational leaders generally face?
PF: I think it’s interesting that in education sector, particularly, public schools, charter schools, independent schools, religious and private schools, they all are in in a world where they’re judged very harshly, sometimes around academic achievement, meaning there are measures and metrics for achievement in the form of tests. Standardized tests, outcome-based exams that are used to assess whether or not a school is performing well, and those are all very important, very useful, but in some ways to drive results that are very measurable, you need to focus on more than just the ingredients for driving tests scores up. You need to focus on creating a high performing organization, motivated people a well-functioning board, engaged staff and volunteers that are committed. There’s a whole range of things that drive performance so interestingly about the education sector is that it is, probably along with the health sector, one of the two areas where performance measurement and outcome measurement is fairly stark. There are a lot of sectors like arts or religion where the outcomes are much harder to measure. You’re under a lot of pressure in the education context to drive these metrics up and it’s very easy to obsess just on curriculum and teaching techniques, to think that those are the tools that are going to drive performance. But my experience is that a well-run school is more than just a well-designed curriculum and a well-chosen cadre of teachers, it’s got management and strategy embedded in the vision into the day to day operations, and it’s run well. If the school’s run well, it’s going to have a much higher probability of getting a positive performance.
AR: We talk a lot about mission and mission drift and sort of managing the mission within the executive program. The mission seems a lot more obvious for a charter school. It’s educating students, you know, that that’s the primary goal. But how is that mission drift and managing mission still essential to charter school leaders, and independent school and religious school leaders?
PF: It’s interesting because a lot of schools start out with a very clear vision about what they want to be and who they want to serve, what their calling is. But there’s an important part of any strategy that involves not just the operation side, not just the finance side, but the mission side. That means constantly asking is my mission still desired, wanted, and demanded in the community, what can I do to enhance it? We adjust mission to make it ever more appealing and appropriate given changing times and changing cultural contacts. Mission is never fixed. This is a common mistake people have. They think that once a mission is set it is sacred and it can’t be touched. We take the approach in the executive program that mission is among many other tools. It’s a lever that has to be open to movement and adjustment, maybe less drastic, maybe less sudden, maybe less frequently than operational or financial levers, but mission has to be constantly watched to make sure that it remains relevant and in demand because there’s nothing worse than having a vision and a mission that the staff and leader are deeply committed to, but that the community and the parents don’t find attractive or useful. The calling is to take mission as something that’s really important but that has to be constantly managed and recalibrated as the world around it changes.
AR: Charter schools especially, but religious schools and independent schools as well, are in an obviously unique position where the majority of students are attending public schools managed by government and school boards. What skills, what knowledge come from the executive program to help these leaders specifically interface with government, with the public to address that additional challenge that this sub-sector faces?
PF: They do have regulatory pressure on them and they are interacting both with private funders and public funders depending on the type of school. We take the approach in the executive program that management is not just internal. It’s also stakeholder management. It’s external. It involves community connection, it involves managing a whole range of stakeholders outside of the organization. That’s one of the critical pieces of good management. There’s plenty of content in the executive program around the stakeholder environment, analyzing it, understanding it and managing it.
AR: Any future trends that you’re seeing in the sector that the program prepares executive student to be ready for.
PF: The world of charter schools, in particular, has grown substantially over time. There are thousands and thousands now and there’s a need to both differentiate and to prove impact and performance in what I would describe as an increasingly competitive environment, not just in the education sector, but more broadly across social impact work writ large. There’s a growing competitive imperative that you can’t just assume that you’re the only one, and you’re the only option. You need to be able to define your position, differentiate against what’s out there, and make the argument that you’re creating value. The executive program is really aimed at helping you do that sort of thing effectively. As the world becomes more competitive, as that becomes a key element of the environment, you need to devote time and effort to strategy and management.
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