Robin Hood Foundation

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?’

Measuring Impact

I use a metric to measure the exertion of my cross-country ski training (at least when I am not recovering from viral meningitis, then I just use the “am I standing upright” measurement).  I outline a purpose for each workout and give it a percentage grade when I am done with 100% representing my workout matching perfect my purpose.  I multiple that by the duration of the workout, 0.25 to 5 hours and then multiple by the intensity with a scale of 1 very easy and 5 a maximum effort.  An example of the metric: my purpose the other day was to ski a long distance workout at level 2 (relatively easy pace) with minimal stops and focus on a specific skiing technique.  In reality I skied 3.5 hours and focused on technique but the intensity was higher than I planned since I had to fight a headwind and skied harder than I had intended.  The calculation: purpose index is .75 (75% of my purpose) x 3.5 hours x 3 (level 3 intensity)= 7.87 index.  Had I honored my purpose for the workout the formula would have been 1.0 (100%) x 3.5 hours x 2 (level 2 intensity)= 7.0.  That does not mean the intended workout was less effective than the actual session but it puts a metric on the exertion.  I then can monitor the impact of the workouts on my races and recovery.


So how can this type of metric be applied to your enterprise?  Many nonprofits lack a perfect metric (as noted by Jim Collins in his Good to Great and the Social Sector, a follow-up book to his best seller Good to Great).  So we invent our own.  Jim notes that a symphony in the Midwest decided to anecdotally follow the number of taxi cab drivers who mentioned the symphony as an attraction while driving tourists from the airport to downtown.  It would be extremely difficult to track this as a metric.  The symphony’s assumption was that if a taxi driver was promoting the symphony then they were well positioned as an attraction in the community.  So what value works for your cause?  World Bicycle Relief could track the number of bikes distributed into an African community but if nobody is using the bikes then the metric is flawed.  So perhaps you track the number of miles ridden on the bike, the number of times the bike is ridden each day, the gross weight of the supplies carried on the bike, or the time saved by riding a bike compared to walking.  Perhaps these measurements get you more information than just the number on units distributed. 


Return on investment (ROI) is a common refrain in the nonprofit board room, a carryover from the corporate world.  In some cases this is a very effective measurement.  The Robin Hood Foundation targets poverty in New York City.  The foundation employees an economist to measure the effectiveness of their grants.  They have established an index that measure the cost-benefit ratio of their grants and support.  Their approach is very focused and scientific.  The majority of the foundation’s board members come from the corporate world and this is a language they speak with ease.  Presenting the information in this manner meets the culture of the board and staff and can be explained readily to the high-energy, high-fiance world of Wall Street.  They now their audience and they are delivering the message in a business terminology.  


What do you need to measure?  Who is your audience?  How can you most effectively monitor the impact of your programs?  Is it scientific or anecdotal?  Are you collecting right data?  Is it relevant to your donors and customers?