On May 14, I wrote about my webinar with Sean Stannard-Stockton. Several of the people who questioned Sean were curious about the classic question of whether giving is more dominated by the heart or the head. Sean answered that for his high net worth clients the answer is clearly both. Significant giving starts with passion—a commitment to make the world a better place or to pay back or to make a difference. But these donors have a passion of another kind—the determination to get things done. That’s where the head comes in—learning something about the cause, an organization’s capabilities, and measuring progress are all some of the necessary elements in achieving success.
I was reminded of the webinar when I read John Allen Paulos in the May 10 New York Times.. In “Metric Mania,” Paulos reflects that “in the realm of public policy, we live in an age of numbers. To hold teachers accountable, we examine their students’ test scores. To improve medical care, we quantify the effectiveness of different treatments. There is much to be said for such efforts, which are often backed by cutting-edge reformers. But do we hold an outsize belief in our ability to gauge complex phenomena, measure outcomes and come up with compelling numerical evidence?”
His article goes on to point out some of the variations and pitfalls with statistical tests, categorization, aggregations, and rankings.
He gives the example of efforts to evaluate New York City public schools and charges that “this approach risked putting too much weight on essentially random fluctuations and induced schools to focus primarily on taking tests.”
He points out that “medical researchers face similar problems when it comes to measuring effectiveness”and “the temptation to use the five-year survival rate as the primary measure of a treatment for a particular disease,” even though rates may differ from region to region.
His column ends with this word of caution: “No method of measuring a societal phenomenon satisfying certain minimal conditions exists that can’t be second-guessed, deconstructed, cheated, rejected or replaced. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be counting—but it does mean we should do so with as much care and wisdom as we can muster.”
To that I add my own “amen.” As a sector, we are still in the early stages of identifying appropriate ways to measure the effectiveness and impact of nonprofit organizations. It’s easy to point at the difficulties and failures. But we’re slowly making progress. Learn more about GuideStar’s latest effort to partner with organizations to build effective measures of performance.
The preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff, Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.