The perils of measuring 'success'

May 10, 2010
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One mega trend of our age, accountability, is taking the not-for-profit world by storm as donors and volunteers demand documentation that their dollars and time accomplish good.

That’s fine, says Patrick Rooney, executive director at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy. Measurement brings improvement.

But Rooney cautions that donors and volunteers in some cases actually could see worse results.

If not-for-profit supporters won’t invest in organizations or projects that are difficult to measure, then not-for-profits will think up things supporters will back.

Take homelessness. What if supporters flock to not-for-profits that can document meals served, but shy away from groups that try to figure out root causes? Or what if backers plow money into college scholarships instead of Lumina Foundation, which looks for ways to expand access to college educations?

“Not everything that can be measured is important, and not everything that is important can be measured,” Rooney says.

Interestingly, research shows the Millennial generation, people born roughly between the early ‘80s and the turn of the century, are more interested in documentation than any other living generation. As their careers advance and they earn more money, their influence on not-for-profits will rise. So the screws could tighten.

What are your thoughts about measuring outcomes in the not-for-profit realm? How much is useful or desirable?


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