Musings on measurement

Recently I’ve been thinking about the role of measurement and quantification in the social sector.  Over the past decade or two there has been an increasing push to quantify and measure everything – and those calling for measurement are looking for outcomes, not just inputs.  Overall, I think this makes a lot of sense.  There are billions of dollars pouring into the social sector – it’s a good idea to have a sense that those dollars are spent wisely and, ideally, are creating as much good as possible. At the same time – I think there needs to remain room for the human side.  Yes – I’m a quant girl by background and experience – but I don’t think all things are measureable, or should be quantified.  I believe sometimes you just need to believe that something is a good thing, that it makes a difference, and that the difference is worthy of support.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with a wide variety of non-profit organizations.   One of my recent clients was an organization that brings joy and normalcy to seriously ill children.  Because of this organization, many of these children achieve amazing transformations. These children come to realize that they can fit in, that they can have hope and ambition.  One of the Board members was pushing for a way to measure the cost effectiveness of the organization’s approach – maybe there was a cheaper way to serve these children.  Interestingly, the strong majority of the Board was not energized by this call for measurements.  Rather, they were motivated by the individual stories of triumph and transformation.   And they understood that sometimes you can’t deconstruct magical experiences to their core components so as to replicate them at a lower cost.

Perhaps I sound heretical, and I certainly am not advocating against all measurement of outcomes.  I’m just saying that there still needs to be space for the simply human – for understanding that while providing a meal to a hungry individual might cost $3, and providing a college education to another might cost many thousands of dollars – that happiness, security, hope, ambition are all priceless – and there’s value in that.