Every measure of success serves someone’s vision of success

In “Making a Difference #3” we talked about how a charitable organization with such a straightforward mission as “serve those most in need” gets to report as its bottom line, “pounds of food distributed.”

Actually, we mostly talked about what’s good and bad about such a bottom line, but only from a measurement or evaluation standpoint.  We decided that “pounds of food distributed” has two big things going for it: it neatly sums up a key theme of a food shelf’s organizational productivity, and it’s easier to count up than some other things.

But there’s a lot that it misrepresents, underreports, or undervalues; ultimately, it misleads and directs our attention and critical skills toward the more easily countable, and away from the more meaningful, putting the organization at risk of becoming little more than a food distribution machine.  This would be an unfortunate illustration of the “you get what you measure” principle.

And it sidetracks the work needed to create a more comprehensive and meaningful effort to reduce hunger.  If all we do is relief work we never get to creating the systems that allows everyone access to healthy and nutritious food.

OK, let me back out of this diversion and start again — how does such an organization get to report such a bottom line?  Obviously this measure is assigned by its chief funder. And its chief funder is a federated workplace giving program governed by people with the perspectives of business administration, so it’s no wonder that such a bottom line is chosen.

Fortunately, we say, this organization’s charitable mission, if not its metrics, is assigned by a higher authority.  How do we report success to this higher authority?  These two different orientations set up a culture clash that pervades the entire philanthropic sector, pitting business-oriented secular types against mission-oriented help-the-world types.

Punch line: You’re gonna have to serve somebody, sings one of Minnesota’s greatest poets.  And every measure of success serves someone’s interests.  We need criteria that serve larger, multiple interests consistent with the organization’s mission.  All choices of “bottom lines” are moral and political choices.  So, choose them with care and purpose.