Problems With Using A Single Measure of Success

There’s a problem with using a single measure of success.   It may seem simple, but a single measure of a charitable organization’s productivity, no matter how common-sensible, isn’t nearly enough to convey all that’s important.

For example, a well-established emergency food shelf near me “distributed 542,453 pounds of food” last year, according to its website.  No doubt it calculated and announced this measure of program impact to answer questions coming from its principal donors and stakeholders.  But is it a good measure of program impact, or even, more simply, of program productivity?

Let’s look at some pros and cons of using this relatively simple measure “pounds of food distributed.”

“Pounds” is a well-accepted, non-controversial measure of weight, with a very precise meaning regulated by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards.  It’s not so useful in regions where weight comes in kilograms, but in the US, it’s gold.  Or iron; when you pick up two 10-pound weights at the gym, chances are excellent they each weigh the same, at least close enough for use in a fitness regimen.

Pounds of food is less precise.  Presumably, two packages marked “16 oz” of the same brand of Mac & Cheese weigh the same.  But different brands?  And how much is food vs. packaging?  Those are questions for Consumers Union.

Not all pounds of food are equal.  Is a pound of Mac & Cheese-type food equivalent to a pound of spinach-like food?  They may both weigh the same, but they have very different nutritional values, different comfort value, different familiarity to different cultures, different storage issues, different ease of preparation, different yum factor, different spoilage rates – all of which is lost in the non-controversial “pound of food” measure.  A pound of Mac & Cheese lasts months, even years; it can be trucked and shipped without losing nutritional value.  A pound of spinach lasts days, requires refrigeration, and doesn’t travel far without spoiling.

When we’re talking “pounds of distributed food,” who gets this food, and should we care?  Does a faith-based charity operate with different expectations than a tax-supported one?  “Pounds of distributed food” doesn’t tell us what happens to the people who receive some.  Is their distress relieved by just one meal, or by more?  It doesn’t tell us if people coming to the food shelf also get attention for other needs.  What ultimately happens to them?  And what about shut-ins? These questions are avoided with a single measure like “pounds of food distributed.”

Key lessons:

A pound of distributed food may be a good measure for evaluating relief efforts, but not as good for evaluating a healthy lifestyle.  Needed is a metric called “pounds of nutrition.”

542,453 pounds of food distributed in a year is a lot of food, over 10,000 pounds per week.  Clearly this is a well-organized charity doing very important work.  But 542,453 pounds of food distributed in a year is probably piddling compared to the amount of food that probably needs to be distributed.

“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 measure than some other things.

A single measure of a charitable organization’s productivity, no matter how common-sensible, isn’t nearly enough to convey all that’s important.  This is not to pick on this food shelf in the slightest, it’s only to show how inadequate even a straightforward measure can be.  Shouldn’t we be curious about all these other “outcome measures”?

Calculating “pounds of food distributed” is no easy task; someone has to weigh it out and add it up for a year.  Chances are it’s not done like that, but it illustrates how costly it becomes to produce even a halfways-informative answer to a simple question.

Organizations providing relief should continually educate their donors on what is and is not being communicated with their measures of success.  Funders of relief efforts should consider what, really, are the important measures of success.  If there’s money enough to evaluate two or three outcomes, what should they be? 

Originally published March 18, 2011

Lightly revised November 4, 2020

Originally appeared:

Original date: March 18, 2011