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 nonprofits 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 at Mission Measurement 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?

Mission Measurement 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 multi-task (85%) and their networking skills (86%). Even more—90%—had improved communication skills. Having scientifically sampled a wide range of staff, Jason 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.


How have WE and Mission Measurement been working together?

Years ago, I first sat down with a bunch of young, unlikely heroes who displayed consummate professionalism, extreme dedication and a flawless quality in their work product. The most impressive thing I observed about WE was the caliber of people and the strength of their commitment to working for a cause.

Mission Measurement helped the organization 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. The goal was to help the organization become more outcome-driven and help the organization “sell” those outcomes to the market, if you will.

Measuring outcomes today is a commodity. Sponsorship used to be emotion-driven, but today donors are looking to buy outcomes. Donors 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 aiming to transform kids’ lives, donors can determine for themselves what outcome is more compelling.

What makes WE different?

The WE team deserves full credit for the outcomes the organization is producing. The breadth and reach of how many kids around the world are being impacted by WE alone’, is impressive. Most organizations produce fairly basic outcomes: make a kid more aware of nutrition’, ‘get them physically active’, or ‘raise awareness of social issues’. WE is aiming for higher-level outcomes. They are aiming to transform a kid’s life.

WE is achieving that high-order impact. Our research shows that WE Schools, for instance, produces outcomes that can make kids better students, 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. Our research also showed that kids who engaged with WE Schools are better prepared for college.

But I’m not just talking about the research studies we conducted. I witnessed WE’s impact on youth first-hand and up-close. My brother was stricken with Multiple Sclerosis for many years, and tragically passed away. He had triplets, and one of them, Griffen, was devastated by the loss of his father as a young teenager. Unaware of my work with WE, Griffen reached out to Craig, and got involved in the WE Charity in Chicago. I didn’t need to run a pre-post study to see that it changed his life—Griffen became inspired, empowered, more confident, and more socially engaged. He started his own charity—We Are Able—to help young people with disabilities. His leadership and achievements, in addition to his grades, won him a scholarship and got him accepted to a top-flight school. He went on to intern with Barack Obama’s foundation and now works at Google on U.S. elections. That impact speaks for itself.

For stakeholders, the question is: Does the organization have an impact? Clearly the data also speaks for itself.

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 designed to bring people abroad and bond as a family or company, so that they can learn about the needs of the international community. A lot of organizations try to replicate this by creating a for-profit subsidiary, but all too often these business ventures have little to do with the mission and can end up steering the organization off course.

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

What I found most interesting was the benefit of scale. While we have not yet studied this directly, I would expect that the WE family has a lower cost-per-outcome than other organizations in their peer-set.

Cost-per-outcome is an emerging benchmark in the nonprofit sector based on the program budget, divided by the total number of kids achieving positive outcomes.

Leveraging WE Day and public schools through WE Schools, it appears the organization has built a very scalable platform, with a lower cost of impact and higher degree of engagement. The “magic” of any organization is in its program design and “DNA”: what levers do you pull to produce certain outcomes and how efficient are you in producing those outcomes?

Everyone pays attention to WE Day speakers and celebrities, but the focal point should be on outcomes: the level of youth engagement, attitude change and behavior change that results from the intervention.

This interview has been condensed and edited.