When we talk about measuring the impact of philanthropy, we are in essence discussing how to know the truth. We are examining how we might best understand the reality in which we live and the ways in which our actions affect the world around us. While “impact assessment” can sound like an academic or theoretical concept, it is at its root, simply the search for truth.
When thought about this way, you can see why I care about holistic approaches to understanding the social sector. While statistical analysis or stakeholder reviews or expert reviews or financial analysis all offer a view into the truth, each are limited in their ability to understand the full truth. So it was with great interest that I read an article in the Foundation Review about the Knight Foundation’s use of investigative journalists to do impact assessment.
Starting in 2006, the Knight Foundation hired investigative journalists to write “clear, honest, factual and transparent quarterly reports” that attempted to “draw out something close to the truth” about the results of the Foundation’s programs. The journalists were given full access to internal Knight Foundation documents and employees, and free range to pursue the story of what really happened through interviews with grantees, community leaders and anyone else of the reporters’ choosing.
The Foundation Review article, authored by the former vice president of communications for the Foundation, concludes that the resulting reports were “more direct, even critical, than any prior Knight Foundation attempt to evaluate and assess,” and that they “produced deeper looks into the intent and outcome of major initiatives.”
Great journalism helps the community it serves to discover the truth about the reality of the world in which they live. Great journalism recognizes that the truth is not simply the facts, but is dependent on the context in which the facts exist. Importantly, journalism uses narrative to communicate its findings.Stories are not distractions from the truth, they are the vehicle through which humans have always come to understand the truth.
The role of investigative journalists in helping us understand financial markets and politics is well understood. Books like Too Big to Fail, by New York Times reporter Andrew Sorkin set the standard for helping us understand “what really happened” during the financial crisis, just as All The President’s Men by Woodward & Bernstein got at the truth of “what really happened” during Watergate. Importantly, these books and the newspaper articles by their authors are understandable by non-professionals and in fact are extremely popular with laypeople.
Too often when we think about “impact assessment” we think of statistical analysis and dense research reports. These techniques have huge importance, the are often the foundation on which great journalism draws, but we must not fail prey to the idea that research reports and statistical analysis represent “the truth”. The truth of reality is a multifaceted mosaic that all humans seek to understand. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we discuss philanthropic impact as if it is an arcane science through which only specially trained professionals can determine what works.
Philanthropic impact is nothing more than the extent to which philanthropy actually makes a difference. The field of impact assessment is nothing less than the search for The Truth.