Measures of Success Reflect Someone’s Vision of Success

confusing measures of success

Measures of success, especially in the nonprofit world, reflect someone’s personal vision of success. The choice of measures for gauging the success or effectiveness of a nonprofit organization is not as objective as one might think.

In an earlier post on the problem with using just a single measure of success, we talked about a charitable organization with a straightforward mission, “serving those most in need.”  The organization then uses what seems to be a straightforward measure of success, “pounds of food distributed.”

In that post, we mostly talked about what’s good and bad about such a bottom line, but only from a measurement or evaluation standpoint, not from a mission or human-focused 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.

Most measures of success misrepresent, under-report, or undervalue.

But there’s a lot that “pounds of food distributed” misrepresents, under-reports, or undervalues.  Ultimately, it misleads and directs our attention and critical skills toward the more easily countable. And it leads us away from the more meaningful.  This can put 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.

Even worse, it can sidetrack the work needed to create a more comprehensive and meaningful effort to reduce hunger.  So if all we do is relief work, we never get to creating the systems that allow everyone access to healthy and nutritious food.

Is this the kind of bottom line the organization wants to report?  Probably not.  Unfortunately its choice is most likely directed by its chief funder.  And its chief funder is dedicated to simplified metrics rooted in business management and governed by people with limited views of what’s valuable. Evaluation can take you in different directions

This culture clash pervades much of the philanthropic sector, pitting business-oriented secular types against mission-oriented help-the-world types.

Punch line: You gotta serve somebody, sings Bob Dylan, one of America’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.

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project

Originally published on this site March 25, 2011 / Most recently revised April 1, 2022