Recently I attended a wedding and saw a perfect demonstration of how real and tangible impact* is and yet how ephemeral and impossible it is to quantify. The wedding was going along just fine. The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome, the setting a wonderful public garden in New York. There were even little bunny rabbits jumping around the lawn (amazingly enough they were wild rabbits who live in the park).
But then, a little after dinner but before the cake was cut, something kind of wonderful happened. The band started to play a song that everyone knew, people began moving towards to the dance floor, laughing started as a couple of people who didn’t want to dance got pulled along by a spouse or child… and then everybody danced. The song seemed to last for just a moment and yet that moment lasted forever. When the band came to a halt the whole dance floor exploded into applause, everyone laughed and then people began wandering back to their seats or over towards the bar.
That moment was what made the wedding great. It was what transformed it from a simple ceremony to a true celebration and the welcoming of the newlyweds into their community of friends and family.
There’s no system that a wedding planner can put in place to insure that “the moment” happens every time. There’s no way to systematically rank the “impact” of weddings or the effectiveness with which wedding planners create “the moment”. But is still real.
A smart wedding planner will take note of those things that help create the great weddings. They’ll recognize which bands have that certain something that brings people out to dance. Some wedding planners will be better than others and some will be just terrible. And sometimes the best weddings will happen almost by accident.
One of the problems with talking about impact in the social sector is the lack of ability to accurately quantify or even identify impact. In a perfect world we would measure the impact, compare it to the cost of achieving said impact, and we’d be able to perfectly allocate resources to the highest impact projects.
But something that cut and dry is nothing by a fantasy.
Impact is real. Some nonprofits achieve more than others. Some funders are better than others, too. It might be hard to measure, but we can recognize the elements that help it to occur. And when real impact does occur in the social sector, it is amazing what we can achieve.
*Impact is the “good” that an organization achieves.
Comparing a ‘moment’ at a wedding to changing peoples lives is an apples to oranges comparison. This argument does not hold water.
For a ‘low hanging fruit’ example, look at measuring the impact of an organization whose mission it is to combat chronic homelessness. Either a person is chronically homeless, or not. We may quibble over the definition of chronic homelessness. It may be expensive to track the homeless to know whether there has been a relapse. But it is most certainly not a ‘fantasy.’
Looking at a harder case, say an organization whose mission it is to increase democracy, one may argue that measuring the impact here is truly impossible.
If that organization has a clearly articulated mission, supported by a theory of change, and well developed strategies and program logic flow to inform their tactics, then they will necessarily be measuring impact. Whether this be the number of youth registered to vote in a given timeframe, or the number of contributors to a given blog.
The challenge here is NOT that it is a fantasy. The challenge is that it is time intensive and thus expensive.
We, as nonprofit professionals, should not write off impact and attribute it to some kind of wizardry that is as allusive as a magical moment at a wedding.
Rather, we should seek to innovate around how to reduce the cost of outcome/impact measurement and improve our methods. We should also be discussing how we balance the cost of impact measurement with the challenge of allocating capital in our organizations with imperfect information.
These are the real issues. This should be the real discussion.
Sean, what a beautiful post. This touches directly on the important stuff, for me: the ephemeral, completely qualititative, terribly important work of paying attention to what it means to have generated something good. Where you use the word impact, I usually use the word meaning — what meaning, what value, has been created because a certain process (activity, engagement) took place?
One of your statements in particular made me smile: “In a perfect world we would measure the impact, compare it to the cost of achieving said impact, and we’d be able to perfectly allocate resources to the highest impact projects.”
I smiled because I’ve spent alot of time thinking about words like perfect, and how they tempt us to arrange our options-for-action along a straight line, from less perfect to more perfect. I’m honestly not sure that straight line exists anywhere, except for just a split second if that, and only in our imagination. In other words, the fantasy isn’t that perfect picture you painted, but the concept of perfection itself.
Physicist David Bohm, among others, spent alot of time thinking about the difference between problems — which set things up in a straight line (problem-solution, cause-effect) — and paradoxes — which are problematic situations created by very nonlinear situations. Those are situations where you couldn’t line things up one after another if you wanted to, because their very definitions looped around among each other.
Engaging with paradoxes — understanding them, working within them to improve a situation — is very different from problem-solving. I like to think we’re gradually recognizing that much of what philanthropists grapple with are paradoxes, not problems. Your post is an example of that, ending with a call to recognize rather than to find a solution.
And the metaphor of a wedding planner is really helpful, too. The most that we can do in wanting to create philanthropic experiences is to create a set of conditions that encourage and support philanthropy. That’s still plenty of work, but it’s very different from creating a set of *causes* that *result* in philanthropy.
We should seek to create the conditions that turn a gesture of giving (money, time, attention, knowledge) into a gesture of compassion (rather than a gesture of pity, or patronizing charity) but we can’t program it. I’m not sure we’d want to even if we could.
If it were any other way – if you really could generate that spark by planning to the nth degree — the spark wouldn’t mean what it does. That moment at the wedding wouldn’t have been magical, I suspect, if it really *could* have been it would have been programmed.
Perhaps we should be actively generating tools that help us recognize this impact we seek, and leave the measuring for those things that do line up in straight rows…
Apologies for not including my blog address beforehand. I look forward to participating more and contributing to the valuable discussions going forward.
Thanks for your great comments David and Christine. I’m making your two comments the focus of my post for tomorrow.
I look forward to continuing the conversation, too. David, I enjoyed reading your comment and wanted to stress that I don’t see our positions as either/or. We can absolutely pay attention to measurable indicators of, say, homelessness, like you suggest. But that will always be only part of the story, since there are many ways to eliminate homelessness and not all of them are compassionate. So let’s measure things that are measurable – the number of homeless – and pay attention to the things that aren’t – whether it’s because we truly care about the people that otherwise would be on the streets, or (as an example of a less altruistic motive) we don’t want our property value to be negatively affected by the man sleeping on the sidewalk in front of our house. Whether there’s a man sleeping there or not won’t tell me whether there’s “good is going on.” I need to know why he’s there, or why he isn’t.
I just recently learned about this author while looking at Tom Peters website, (www.tompeters.com) and I thought this excerpt from an interview pertains to many of the discussions on Tactical Philanthropy:
Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist. As such, he studies how people will act in a wide range of financial transactions, and—surprise!—it’s not always rationally. His book is Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions,
DA: Yes. First of all, let me give an example of a social norm and a market norm. Imagine that I ask you for a favor, “Would you help me change a tire on my car?” Chances are, you think I’m a reasonable guy and you will help me. What if I promised you two dollars to do it? Would you tell yourself, “Gee, I get to help plus I get two dollars?” Of course not. In fact, the two dollars would not be an added benefit; it would subtract your social motivation. “Oh, this is a job? I don’t do anything for two dollars. Offer me one hundred dollars and we’ll talk.” You would not do something for two dollars that you would otherwise do for free.
We basically live in two worlds. One is the social world, in which we do things for other people for mainly unselfish reasons. And then we live in a financial world in which we do things because we are paid to do them. We think about those two worlds very differently. …
The interview continues, but I think this points to one of the fundamental differences between non-profits and businesses, and how by trying to quantify everything in dollars and sense, we lose too much.
It’s not just that financial incentives can not be applied everywhere — In many situations – when they are applied, something valuable is destroyed.
Don’t think you realized it, but you’ve just described exactly the difficulties inherent in measuring the impact of the arts.
Ian, that wasn’t my point, but I’m glad you see the connection. Art is itself (not just the impact of art related giving) is impossible to quantify. And yet there is broad agreement around who the great artists are. So it is clear that just because something isn’t quantifiable or doesn’t follow a scientific process, we can still evaluate it in a way that is broadly agree upon.
Bill, I agree that nonprofits and for-profits are very different. Yet the irrationality you cite is relevant to both for-profits and nonprofits. People engage in financial transactions all the time that are irrational. Think about people buying dot com stocks in the late 90’s.
But I agree 100% that people’s motivations and actions are different when they are operating with a social mission in mind and that shouldn’t be ignored.
Thanks for bringing the quote to my attention. Behavioral finance is one of my favorite elements of economics.
I love those magical moments too. Sometimes when I’m doing weddings dolphins start to play and we’ve seen them jump. The bride and groom get the thrill of a lifetime.
What a juicy post!
The wedding metaphor is a good one. (Even if 50% lead to divorce in the US.)
David did a masterful job of playing the role of one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters wanting to stuff the fat phenomenon in a logic model to satisfy his own needs.
And I am glad that Bill, rode in on his white horse to challenge the false prophet of economic empiricism with a book that should be read by all the TP groupies who lust for a nonprofit market.
(That wonderfully rational market that helped bring us the banking, housing, and energy crisis this year alone!)
But Christine, nailed the most helpful note for me about the “terribly important work of paying attention to what it means to have generated something good.”
Hey Tidy! Nice to see you around these parts. Seems to me that people who lust for a nonprofit market, if they understand markets, should know that markets are not rational in the short term, but do a pretty good job at allocating assets in the long term. I’ve written in the past about long-term vs short-term philanthropy. Seems to me that philanthropy should be able to focus on the long term much more consistently than for-profit markets and therefore develop a more highly functioning market.
Thanks for the “helpful note” comment, Tidy Sum, and Sean you’ve piqued my interest: why would it seem that philanthropy should be able to focus on the long term much more consistently than for-profit markets?
Well, they “should” but they won’t always. Philanthropists can focus on the long term better because the gains are accruing to someone else. It is much easier to focus on the long term when you’re talking about someone besides yourself (for instance it is easier to tell someone to save for retirement, or even put money away for someone else’s education than it is to save for your own).
But I probably overstated the point. Philanthropists are human and humans like immediate gratification. My point was that markets are actually quite rational in the long term (but frequently irrational in the short term) and thereby counter Tidy Sum’s suggest that the housing and energy crisis shows that markets don’t work.