Is Performance Measurement Undermining Social Change?

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Tony Pipa. Tony is a founder and senior consultant to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and the former executive director of the Warner Foundation in Durham, NC.

By Tony Pipa

Is Performance Measurement Undermining Social Change?

Becoming more strategic and measuring one’s effectiveness is all the philanthropic rage.  It’s a movement with merit, as most foundations were ripe to benefit from more rigor and analysis in their work.
But as I watch the field move in almost reflexive fashion to adopt quantitative performance measures and require high-impact modeling from prospective grantees, I fear it may be eroding its potential to stimulate social change at the deepest levels.  As Katherine Fulton, president of the Monitor Institute, recently asked at an event sponsored by the Stanford Center for Social Innovation:  Would today’s new philanthropies have funded the civil rights movement?

Pervasive social and economic inequities – the racial achievement gap in our public education system, the gaps in wealth among whites, blacks, and other communities of color – require more than technical fixes.  They require grassroots leadership development, community building, political advocacy, and public problem-solving processes that involve and balance the interests of multiple stakeholders.  This requires investment in ideas, people, and process that is often messy and non-linear.  Progress along the way can be hard to discern.

In the current environment, the harder it becomes, the fewer there may be to take it on.  I especially fear that in the quest for greater impact, more and more foundations will move away from investing at the very local, grassroots level where many of the ideas and leaders that transform communities are generated.

High-impact models, quantitative measures, improved business management – all are good and important tools.  But, as in most things, moderation is key.

Transformational philanthropy is an art.  It is necessary to be informed by scientific methods, but it will never be a science.  And, as Paul Ylvisaker said 30 years ago, making social progress flow to those in need will require philanthropy to “move out of fixed and safe positions into more independent, flexible, and far more exposed stances between contradictory forces.”  The current drive would appear to do exactly the opposite – provide cover, rather than inspire foundations to take even greater risks in leadership on the most difficult issues facing our society.  I hope I’m wrong.


  1. Seems to be something in the air. White Courtesy recently had an interesting post about whether foundations need to be strategic to succeed. As Albert Ruesga writes, “I’m not yet convinced that business wonks armed with strategies and metrics will consistently outperform grantmakers who work opportunistically, without a rigid plan, constantly adjusting their tactics to a landscape that presents new opportunities and challenges.” And just yesterday the Wall Street Journal reviewed a book, “Strategic Intuition” that says being too focused goals means business (as well as those searching for solutions to social problems) overlook opportunities that might yield better success (or outcomes).

  2. Tom Canavan says:

    Hell, I wish you people would speak English. Is this what you are looking for?

    Philanthropy 2.0 or Guerrilla Philanthropy take you choice.

    I didn’t understand about 99% of what you were talking about but here is my guess. You mean to say that there are rich people out there that want to give their money to help cure social ills but are sick to death of the administrators of these projects first skimming about $150K off the top so they can ride around in a new BMW and pay for a condo for their mistress? Then not really curing the problem they were hired to cure? Is that about it?
    Ok, then I direct the author of this blog and anyone that reads it to do something about it.
    Contact those frustrated old fashioned red tape laden philanthropists you are talking about and introduce them to, The Benefactor
    What I offer is $8 to $9 Billion Dollars a year to create jobs and GIVE homes to our nations underprivileged. I explain it all on the site.
    Here is my iron clad guarantee. Take the information on the site and do it yourself. You will need 3 things to get started.
    1. A Million Dollars.
    2. A carpenter
    3. A secretary to do the payroll.

    That’s all you need to give away the same $8 or $9 Billion Dollars. If you want me to run it then call me.
    Tom Canavan
    The Benefactor Project
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  3. Tidy Sum says:

    One of the strong themes zipping through this blog and others is not so much that performance metrics are bad, but how they are used can stifle the thoughtful dialogue and deliberation required to solve the problems of the world.

    As a funder, I often see how the focus on the wrong metrics often constipate the thinking of organizations and obscure their true accomplishments.

    When I work with foundation trustees and donors often use metrics as cover, use them to squash debate, use them in horse-trading, and use them along with grunting and chest beating as primitive demonstrations of power, authority, and expertise.

  4. I often here people talk about philanthropy needing to become more business-like in order to succeed and then point to metrics as the way to be “business-like”. Wrong.

    Tidy Sum has it right. Business people are not obsessively quantitative. Metrics and stats are used, but at the end of the day everyone asks “Is this making money”? Nobody is going to be happy trying to move “gross margin”, or “R&D spending” or “average revenue per unit” in isolation. Everyone just wants to make money.

    Philanthropy should use metrics, but at the end of the say ask “Is this having an impact”? Who cares about “DALYs” in isolation. You’ll run a company into the ground if you focus on metrics and ignore whether you’re making money. Unfortunately you won’t run a funding program into the ground by making the same mistake.

  5. Worth noting: the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s 2006 annual report is, according to President Nancy Roob, “a departure from previous editions … [it] focuses on Foundation and grantee performance in meeting the objectives we set with our grantees, as well as future performance projections. She adds, “It is the first time we have produced a public report about performance; and it is our intention to continue to do so in future annual reports.”

  6. Worth noting: The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s newly published 2006 Annual Report, according to President Nancy Roob, is devoted to a discussion of foundation and grantee performance. Check it out:

  7. Thanks for your very thoughtful post, Tony. You raise the question, “Would today’s new philanthropies have funded the civil rights movement?” I think the answer is yes, most likely. (I tried exploring the question in this post.) An interesting question for me is whether an excessive focus on measurement and outcomes (as traditionally defined) would lead a philanthropist–new or otherwise–to take a chance on promising leaders who have no track records and no business plans. I’m sure many foundations and individual donors jumped on board once Dr. King and his movement were in vogue. It would have taken an inspired grantmaker to recognize and support his genius early on.

  8. Tony Pipa says:

    Thanks, Albert. Your question is precisely the one I was driving at, as I’m interested less in whether foundations will jump on board once a leader or model been proven worthwhile (or been able to attract initial funding).

    But – really – would it have taken an “inspired” grantmaker to support the work early on? If the predominant mindset were not so focused on removing most of the risk before making an investment & demanding quantitative measures of progress – indeed, if the predominant mindset were to have a comfort level with investing in a certain percentage of leaders and ideas that a grantmaker presumes might fail – then it might have taken a grantmaker just doing a good job. We like to call philanthropy “social venture capital,” but I fear that we view our risk portfolio very differently than a venture capitalist does, since s/he will figure in losses at the outset as the cost of doing business.

    I’m also concerned whether today’s grantmakers would stay in it for the long haul. Halfway through a community-building initiative, when issues are exposed and contradictory positions seem even more entrenched – e.g., the potential polarization of a local school board when attempting to address the racial achievement gap – or halfway through an advocacy movement where progress seems messy or halting at best, would foundations stay the course? Those may be the exact points at which the real work is starting to get done, but they are the points at which – at least on the surface – the situation can seem least fruitful.

  9. Something to consider is that when for-profit analysis is done of very large companies, metrics are very important. When analysis is done of very small companies, the “story” or “vision” of the company is much more important since the small size of the company means that things change fast and growth rates, debt levels and profit margins can fluctuate a lot.

    Given that most nonprofits are quite small, it makes sense to me that good grantmakers should not get lost in metrics and instead need to find projects that have vision and appear to have a model to implement it.

    Albert, I think your point that the people involved are critical is key and backed-up by the same thing being true in small for-profit companies.