Posted by: Nathaniel | March 12, 2008

“For Good, Measure” From the New York Times

Last Sunday, the NYTimes dedicated most of the Sunday magazine to money, or more accurately, giving money away. One of the lead articles was “For Good, Measure.”:

One paradox of social investment, whether by governments or private foundations, is that spending more doesn’t necessarily produce a greater impact. This is the main reason that over the past few years a number of foundations have become increasingly interested in — you might even say obsessed with — measuring the efficiency and effectiveness of their work. Basically their attitude is, If you really want to change the world, first you need to start measuring how (and how much) you’re changing it — because only a clear understanding of your results will enable you to expand the programs that work and jettison the ones that don’t.”


While a good primer for the conversation about impact assessment that’s cascading through the nonprofit world, the article doesn’t take on the trickiest issue with all of this assessment talk until the penultimate paragraph:

“Paul Brest, the Hewlett Foundation president…worries slightly that a philanthropic community too focused on equating grants with cost-benefit measurement could veer toward projects that are easily measured. Such a tilt could give short shrift to the performing arts. Another possible danger is an inclination to compare the hypothetical “returns” of financing a project on climate change, say, with a program to help disaffected youth. “There are apples and oranges,” he says, “and then there are apples and kangaroos.””

For many initiatives, the impact question invokes an inherent fuzziness that the clarity-of-bottom-line-thinking could miss. If replicable quantitative analysis become a philanthropic pre-request, how will funders treat performing arts groups? Programs that focus on youth leadership? Even education is up for grabs. Are standardized test-scores our only indicators?

The point is not to rain on the metric parade, but to inject complication in the discussion of impact assessment. It seems to me that the foundation approach should be one in which they work with their organizations to develop mutually agreed upon measurement tools, not to the ends of philanthropic natural selection but to help good organizations achieve better results.

For readers involved with organizations that do “hard to measure” work, what are the tools that you’ve used effectively to measure impact and added value?



  1. […] as I’ve mentioned before, the nonprofit sector (donors and the organizations) has to move away from using low overhead as a […]

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