Measuring Success or Something

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”

John Allen Paulos, The Way We Live
 The New York Times Magazine, May 16, 2010

There is a fascination with measuring our progress or lack there of in all facets of our lives and those of the organizations that employee us.  Many of the fundraisers in the nonprofit world keep track of the number of donors, the dollars contributed, the average size of gift, the number of donors who increased or decreased their gift, and the favorite category of LYBNTs (Last Year But Not This).  I am reminded of Jim Collin’s example in, Good to Great and the Social Sector where he highlighted a cultural organization that measured success by annecdotaly tracking number of taxi drivers who recommended the organization’s programs when they drove out-of-town guests from the airport to downtown.  The Robin Hood Foundation in New York employees an economist full-time to measure the potential impact a program might have on the future earning power of youth living in poverty.

A key conversation Mr. Paulos highlights is the subtle shift that weighted criteria can have on the final ranking.  It sounds simple but in fact many of us are so desperate to quantify our cause’s impact that we gobble-up the data without thinking about its context.  As Mr. Paulos suggest, “counting and aggregating- have important implications for public policy.”  

What if we asked the following questions before we every looked at the bar graphs, pie charts and reports, ‘What did we intend to measure?  What assumptions did we make?  What criteria did we use?  What flaws are inherent with the data?’

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