Non-Profits and the Measurement of What Matters

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really, Want

Non-Profits and the Measurement of What Matters

Hard to believe that it is 25 years since the Spice Girls recorded “Wannabe”, and with it the launch of the “girl power” phenomenon. A catchy tune for all of us “Dad Dancers” out there, but what has it to do with (the more serious) topic of social impact measurement and non-profits?

Well, at the time Posh, Ginger, Sporty, Scary and Baby were storming the charts, I was settling into my job as a government researcher with the British civil service. 1995 was just before the dawn of New Labour’s managerial approach to public services, but already government was demanding greater efficiency and effectiveness. So, while the rest of the world was going all “zig-a-zig-ah”, I was co-authoring my first research paper, the rather ponderous “Managing the Courts Effectively: the reason for adjournments and delays in the magistrates’ courts in England & Wales”.

For the next 20 years, much of the evaluation work that my colleagues and I completed was framed by this managerialism. While working our way through the elusive “what works?” agenda, it became clear that the answers were of interest to government bean counters rather than the general public. So, “what works?” tended to be about government agencies doing things more swiftly, reducing costs to the Exchequer or moderating the politically troublesome issues of youth crime and anti-social behaviour.  While reducing crime in a neighbourhood, and bringing offenders to justice more quickly, remain laudable aims, were they what was “really, really wanted”?

When launching GtD in the US five years ago, we deliberately sought to partner with local and national non-profits. Not surprisingly they see things differently than government, and with that their focus is entirely on the people they serve. I have said it before, but our best non-profit clients know what they are about, and I have remarked that on visiting their offices there is a real energy to their business and commitment to their clients.  That is not to say that there is no tension between a non-profit’s wider goals and the narrower commitments made to a funder, but the best non-profits jealously guard their own ethos and interests.

I saw this first when working with the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta. Its Connect to Success program does vital work in helping young refugees get into employment, training, or education. However, it was clear that for a humanitarian organization the measures of success had to be more than the number of jobs found or college places achieved.  So, our evaluation also measures the wellbeing of the young people and their general satisfaction with their lives in the USA. Similarly, for the public defender organization Gideon’s Promise their metrics of success did not include reductions in convictions or fewer custodial sentences, but something more radical: the quality of the relationship between the public defenders and the clients they represent. Jack and I are currently getting to grips with a new rural health initiative in Georgia. The initiative seeks to tackle the social determinants of health, but it is important that local people should have a say in what good health outcomes look like for their own community.

Of course, non-profits must be diligent in demonstrating their economy, efficiency and effectiveness, but at GtD we also want to measure what our clients believe to be most important to them. This is all part of what we call our “social impact journey”. Before we start measuring the more obvious outcomes, we will take the time to investigate what an organization really wants to achieve, even when it finds that difficult to articulate clearly.  This is all part of what we call the client’s theory of change and it forms the basis for us to find new and exciting ways to measure a client’s true outcomes. If you want to learn more about what your organization can do to measure “what it really, really wants”, why not join our free webinar on October 29th. We will tell you more about GtD’s social impact journey, our packages of “Measure”, “Learn” and “Prove”, and what the next steps are to measure your social impact – definitively.