A Different Metric of Impact


Inspired by interviewing a nonprofit leader about their work for Givology. Rehashing many of his ideas in response to the question “how do you measure impact?” 

There’s something wrong with the way with we’re measuring impact.

Governments and large corporations want to fund large scale projects that have easily quantifiable results. With people demanding accountability from their governments, governments have been hesitant to fund projects that don’t guarantee measurable impacts. (“Statistically speaking, you’re three times more likely to get cancer than you are to get a grant funded by the N.I.H. to cure cancer”1) Then again, most companies are hesitant to fund projects that won’t generate profit.

In the world of research, researchers choose to tackle small projects that have a big chance of success (and thus a big chance of being funded) over potentially groundbreaking projects that may not yield results. In the non-profit world, people donate to non-profits that save lives (read: buying nets for malaria) over ones that address more ingrained and systemic issues (read: educating a community on the importance of education.)

But the latter category of issues, the ones without easily measurable impacts and where success isn’t guaranteed, may be where the slow, sneaky, and powerful impact lies. However, this type of impact is the most difficult to measure, and accountability may be impossible in some cases. In an area where paper and other resources are scarce, is collecting receipts and tracking every piece of equipment realistic? What if a more efficient use of the money comes up? 2 Accountability is clearly important for large scale projects where a dollar or two can easily slip out.. For small scale projects that don’t require a lot of money though, can a general belief in the good will of people really overcome the need for accountability and allow for more flexibility?

What if there were a metric of impact that somehow managed to capture these slower, more systemic changes? One that wasn’t as concerned with hard numbers but still could be adequately compared with numbers. Something that finally humanizes social impact. (While you’re at it, make it spew unicorns too.)

Right now, perhaps the closest measure is something like crowdfunding and microlending platforms that give ordinary people the power to collectively fund big projects. Not an accurate measure by any means, but it’s something that relies more on emotion than accountability. The one caveat is that crowdfunding lacks sustainability. Everyone wants to help start the next big thing. Very few want to keep it going. 3

Would this metric be easy to develop? Clearly not. Would it be worth it? I’d say so.

Thoughts? 4 5 6

  1.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/education/edlife/revenge-of-the-non-nerds.html?_r=0 
  2. This was something I read as a criticism of Kiva and similar organizations. Even though a 
  3.  This was an idea that I first heard through a #givchat with Teal Leaf Trust. 
  4. I’m like 99.9% sure all these ideas have been more accurately and precisely discussed in an economics paper somewhere. And that metric I described most likely exists already, but I don’t know about. (Please comment below if you know about it.) This is why I feel mildly not-accomplished after finishing these long ramblings. 
  5. Really wanted to include a point about how these were like the issues affecting education in the developed world. The focus on standardized test scores over the slow gradual development of a human. The need for “accountability” from the government. The large corporations promoting “reforms” that are only easily scaleable. 
  6. Would have been nice if I could have mentioned 80,000 Hours in here somewhere too. 

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