MEASURING IS GOOD, BUT NOT THE END ALL
By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
I started in the nonprofit sector almost 13 years ago after a 25+ year career in the governmental and business sectors. It was a challenging transition. In 2006, when I came to St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, the nonprofit sector was becoming more focused on the fact that many organizations, especially in the charitable subsector, needed to operate with a more disciplined business focus; that was one of the reasons I was hired. Business people were being hired into nonprofit leadership positions and metrics and outcomes began to pop up more in conversations about organizational mission. Interestingly, about that same time, warning bells were beginning to be heard in some places about the influx of corporate think into the sector. An article from McKinsey and Company in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in the summer of 2006 (1) made the strong case that leadership transitioning from the business sector to the nonprofit world (as I had just done) needed a better appreciation for the balance between good corporate practices and good mission practices. They needed to fully understand that the sector needed to be careful and deliberate in moving forward with operational change driven by the practices, measurements, and outcomes derived from the corporate world. One line in the article was especially clear; “The business side’s failure to understand the complexity, nuance, and criteria for judging success on the nonprofit side has tremendous effects, both on fundraising [and on people’s] understanding of how we’re going to address certain problems effectively.” That is why it is important for business and nonprofit leaders alike to engage in frank discussions about the differences between the two sectors and how executives can overcome them.”
One area of that article came back to front of mind for me a few weeks ago about how donors needed to be thinking about the work of nonprofits and the outcomes of that work that can, and should, be a focus. The section of the article read (bolding emphasis is mine:
Donors. Many donors fail to use their considerable influence to push for better performance at the nonprofits that they fund. Or when they do demand results, they focus on the wrong metrics, such as low administrative overhead, which only hinders the building of a strong organization. To counteract this, nonprofit leaders can teach donors about useful, even if imperfect, measures of impact. As for overhead, nonprofits must inform donors that an organization’s programs are only as good as its management, and that they should be willing to fund administrative overhead. (1)
I have heard and read recently a renewed emphasis by some on how important it is that donors demand detailed metrics and outcomes before they give their money to an organization. They say that the ‘real’ work of nonprofits must be able to be measured and analyzed and then they add a side comment about how, of course, the organizations that do the non-measurable stuff like basic needs should get your attention; just not with your big philanthropic dollars. In other words, drop a few bucks in the poor box or red kettle, but write the big checks to the ones with the multi-colored cool dashboards that can tell you the real story. As someone who leads one of the largest human services organizations in the state I am compelled to push back on that approach.
The work that those of us on the ‘squishy’ measurement side of the nonprofit house do could not be more important. We are the ones who take the risks, who serve the challenged, who provide the ‘on the edge’ services. We know that if we only provided support and services to those who help make our numbers look good we would leave too many people behind. We know that the person who will mess up the outcome percentages because they don’t fit in the formula is someone who is still hungry, homeless, or in crisis. WE are the ones who feed them, cloth them, comfort them, and dignify their humanity with our service.
There is nothing wrong with measuring; it is a good thing that allows organizations to get better. But when we start trying to impose measurement systems on the work of a large portion of the nonprofit sector that are inappropriate and onerous, measuring becomes a bad thing that impacts people and their lives.
We can never forget that our work is about people. And sometimes people can be imperfect. And so too are the programs that support them sometimes imperfect. But they are people, not numbers in a spreadsheet.
When we lose that perspective we have lost our way.