Measuring What Gets Done

It’s all too true that “what gets measured, gets done,” regardless of our opinion about the value of the yardstick.  If a grade in a class depends on only two tests in an entire semester of learning, students will likely work harder on those two tests than on the homework assignments.  If a sports coach believes that the win record defines the team, the team will be more likely to want to win, even at the cost of sportsmanship.  If a credit score determines access to capital, people will be more likely to pay their bills on time.

But does the relationship between measurement and action hold true in the nonprofit sector?  When an afterschool literacy-development program for elementary school students is held accountable for increasing standardized test scores, do they begin teaching to the test?  When a foundation encourages financial self-reliance for a nonprofit, will the organization develop a fee-for-service revenue stream?  When a government agency asks for a report on numbers served, does a grantee organization launch a new recruitment strategy?   Strangely, the expected cause/effect relationship between benchmarks and actions is not as evident when talking about organized social change efforts.

The disconnect may be adaptive on the part of many nonprofit organizations – they may not respond to measurement because it does not reflect what they know really needs to “get done.”  They may humor or argue with evaluators and funders who apply the wrong yardsticks, but ultimately, they may resign themselves to the fact that the outside world simply doesn’t value or understand what they really do well.  Yet, without appropriate and accurate critical feedback about what is getting done, nonprofits are also impeded from understanding themselves.

We all want to understand better how to create social good in the world – whether it’s building stronger communities, enhancing people’s self-sufficiency, or protecting our environment.  But the creativity we use to innovate in the social sector far outpaces the creativity we employ to assess those innovations.  It’s like the scene in the movie Amadeus, when the King , after listening to Mozart astound the court with a stunningly complex composition, summed it up as having “too many notes.”  All too often in the social sector, we suffer a similar failure of imagination when seeking to understand change.

See Change was established as an invitation to the field of philanthropy to reconsider our default approaches to measurement and evaluation in the nonprofit sector.  We’ve experimented for the last five years with videography, digital storytelling, infographics, and social network analysis, and successfully incorporated these emerging methods with more traditional measurement strategies.  But it’s not enough.  As grantmakers explore collective initiatives and network-weaving, as nonprofits blend with businesses to form hybrid drivers of market-based social change, measurement professionals must keep pace.

Our most important purpose as a firm is to inspire and catalyze critical conversations about the nature of social change.  This blog is one effort along these lines.  Stay tuned here for an ongoing discussion of the tricky measurement challenges we all encounter in our work, and an offering of provocative and innovative ideas about how to address them.  We welcome your input.

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