Nonprofit Metrics: Chic But Counterproductive (or, Yer Cheatin' Heart)

Today's insight about nonprofit metrics:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

H/T The Nonprofit Quarterly

This has become painfully clear in the case of high-stakes school testing, which has produced more cheating than improvement. But somehow it had never before occurred to the Nonprofiteer that the same is true of virtually every measure in the nonprofit community: we'll either measure something trivial but measurable for the sake of measuring, or measure something trivial but measurably improving for the sake of succeeding.

This is not an argument for sloppiness, though "social enterprise" and "strategic philanthropy" types think it is. (Favorite line in Jon Pratt's complete Nonprofit Quarterly piece: "[M}any people [think] . . . . how hard can it be to run a nonprofit? All you have to do is make sure that, by the end of the year, you haven’t made a profit!)" The Nonprofiteer has no patience for organizations unable to say how many people they serve, or how long on average those people are able to (say) stay out of abusive situations. And if what they do say suggests that the agency's intervention is ineffective, or less cost-effective than other interventions with the same population on the same subject, she expects to hear an explanation.

But she understands that there actually can be explanations, e.g. that the population being served isn't the same as the one against which it's being measured, or that the intervention addresses a different but equally important problem. If a domestic violence shelter manages to increase the number of days a woman stays away from an abusive partner by having her sleep on the street, that is not progress, and no amount of chi-squaring will make it so.

Pratt's excellent piece lays out clearly the false assumptions underlying Social Impact Bonds, the latest version of presuming that cures for social problems can be mandated by withholding payment from those who merely treat. If our health care system worked this way, oncologists would go unpaid because cancer patients die.

Which suggests a new motto for the not for profit sector: "The floggings will continue until morale improves."

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick &amp; Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at

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