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On Impact Measurement in Philanthropy

With the march toward the marketplace comes a more laser-like focus on impact and metrics. By all means, measure impact. And, by all means, make sure whatever your measuring is worth measuring. And, yes, it is difficult. More difficult than the private sector. But measure we must. As Jim Collins says “To throw our hands up and say, ‘But we cannot measure performance in the social sectors the way you can in business’ is simply lack of discipline. All indicators are flawed, whether qualitative or quantitative….What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor.”

Again, by all means, measure.

With that out of the way, I want to confess a fear of mine, that the mission-money balance I wrote of here will become unbalanced, tilting unhealthily toward money. A review of the literature relating to the business of philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, and socially responsible investing clearly show that markets and metrics are the controlling elements, with philanthropy taking a back seat (if mentioned at all). As Slate’s Felix Salman observes “America’s giving may be becoming a little less passionate, a little more technocratic and bloodless.”

Philanthropy literally means “love of mankind.” The ancient Greeks had six words for love; agape was perhaps the most radical in that agape extends to all people, whether family members or complete strangers. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, from which our word charity originates.

Both the words philanthropy and charity convey a mysterious form of love, conditionless and boundless.

In the rush to the marketplace for solutions, I fear that we’ve fetishized measurement to the extent that the love explicit in philanthropy and altruism are being surgically excised. How do we measure love? How do we quantify the soul relief in the eyes of the a young boy who has just witnessed the brutal murder of his mother as another human being—a trauma counselor called from home in the early hours of the morning—sits with him patiently and, yes, lovingly, while he sorts through a shattering new reality? The counselor communicates, wordless, just by her touch and patient presence that in fact there is such a thing as radical decency, conditioned by nothing other than love. These sorts of things simply can’t be entered into spreadsheets and quantified in any kind of satisfactory actuarial way.

If the saying “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” has become a cliché, author Jerry Muller takes it further in his book The Tyranny of Metrics, calling out what he calls “metric fixation” adding: “The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics)....”

It's likely W. Edward Demings, most famous for his Totally Quality Management (TQM) concept, would have agreed with Muller, maintaining that “you can only measure three percent of what matters.”

By all means measure, but be sure to take into account the love that is animating the work of our social sector professionals.


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