The weight of a television set and measuring results in the charitable sector

Monday, March 3, 2014
Chief Economist Commentary

In a recent blog Seth Godin addresses a fundamental issue in measuring the results that charities and nonprofits achieve: it is hard to define results that are both measurable and meaningful. He uses the analogy of television picture quality, “The weight of a television set has nothing at all to do with the clarity of its picture. Even if you measure to a tenth of a gram, this precise data is useless.”

And, he goes on to conclude that, “It takes a lot of guts to stop measuring things that are measurable, and even more guts to create things that don’t measure well by conventional means.”

This points to a significant issue for the charitable and nonprofit sector. On the one hand, the pressure to measure results and to develop results based management frameworks is relentless and unavoidable. In addition, the emphasis on results is in many ways of great value to charitable and nonprofit organizations – results are a high value management tool, which forces these organizations and governments to relate their activities to the difference they are making. It is no longer sufficient to say that charities consist of good people making a difference – organizations must show how resources are being effectively marshaled in a way, which relates to the results being claimed. This brings discipline and focus to the development of effective business models.

On the other hand, Seth’s observations highlight two quite fundamental problems. First, the sectors I am familiar with – government and the charitable sector – exist because some of the things society values most highly are hard to measure and hard to deliver by private economic activity – intangible values such as high environmental quality or social justice or culture and the arts or wellness. Their intangibleness does not mean they are any less important to society than the number of autos or haircuts the economy provides.

The emphasis on results can lead to an all too human tendency to select priorities that are more easily measureable and perhaps more easily fundable. Charities and nonprofits do not want priorities to focus solely on those things which can be measured and ignore important things that can’t. This means that the pressure to measure has to be addressed in a way that does not undermine the fundamental raison d’être of the charitable sector.

Thus Seth provides an excellent caution. Let’s not turn a potentially valuable emphasis on results into a world in which things that are easily measured get done, those that are harder but important get ignored.

Here a second reality intrudes. At this point in the evolution of charities and nonprofits (and indeed of government) results definition is not very advanced. So how does one measure results when we are perhaps still doing the equivalent of measuring the value of a book by its number of pages?  Two things are required. First is the willingness and courage to make a start, accompanied by the realization that a discipline in its infancy will get better over time. Second, is a built-in tolerance for mistakes – a “plan-do-learn-improve” model of management. One that views inevitable errors as part of the process of development of the better measures that charities and nonprofits will be able one day to use to develop more effective programs and make even more of a difference to the lives of those around them.

Like Seth, I believe we need courage – the courage to make a start at a difficult but beneficial task; the patience to persevere through the inevitable hurdles in doing something new; and the steadfastness not to let fundamental missions be undermined.

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About the Author

Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector, Brian Emmett is tasked with measuring the impact of the sector and bringing economic issues facing charities and nonprofits to the forefront of public policy decision makers. Mr. Emmett is an economics graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the University of Essex in England, and has enjoyed a long and distinguished public service career. He was Canada’s first Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the late 1990s and worked extensively on Canada’s Green Plan. He also served as Vice-President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in the early 2000s and has been an Assistant Deputy Minister in a number of federal government departments.

The office of the Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector is made possible through funding received by The Muttart Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada Foundation.

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