mac and cheese

Problems With Using A Single Measure of Success

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, not all pounds of food are equal. 

There’s a problem with using a single measure of success.   If you think about it, a single measure of a charitable organization’s productivity, no matter how much sense it might make at first, isn’t nearly enough to convey all that’s important about that organization’s output, much less its success or “effectiveness.” Even the almighty single measure of “dollars” misses more than it conveys.

For example, a well-established emergency food shelf near me reports that it “distributed 542,453 pounds of food” last year. That sounds like a lot of food, and kudos to this supplier of emergency food for being so productive. That much food would end hunger – the stated goal of many food shelves – for 542,453 people, at least for the better part of a day. Or for 54,245 people for 10 days, or 5,425 people for 100 days. Again, that food shelf is clearly busy, keeping hunger at bay for many.

Is “pounds of food distributed” a good measure of program impact?

Its principal virtue is that “pounds” is a well-accepted measure of weight, at least in the US and Great Britain. It has a very precise meaning regulated by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. For precision, the metric “pounds of weight” can’t be beat.

But what’s being measured: the weight of the food in their shipping containers, the box on the shelf, the food on the plate?

Perhaps the program could be more clear what it means by “pounds of food distributed.” Of course, just the challenge of calculating “pounds of food distributed” is not as easy as it sounds; someone has to weigh it out and add it up for the year. Chances are it’s not measured out each and every day, but for one day or one shipment then extrapolating or estimation. But it would be helpful for potential donors and supporters to know more about what’s being measured.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, not all pounds of food are equal. 

Is a pound of macaroni and cheese “as good as” a pound of cooked fresh vegetables, or a pound of boiled lobster, or cold spoiled vegetables? They each have different nutritional values, different comfort value, different yum factor, different familiarity to different cultures. They each different storage issues, different ease of preparation, different spoilage rates – different costs, all of which matters to the vendors along the line. A pound of macaroni and cheese still in the box 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. Those issues of meaningful measurement arise just by considering “weight of food.”

Does it matter where this food comes from?

Whether food is trucked from across the country or flown from around the world or grown on farms nearby or provided from the back of a warehouse after the sell-by date – these may not affect the weight, but it does affect the quality. It would be helpful if the program told us more about the nature of the food it’s distributing.

Does it matter who is involved in the production, inspection, and distribution of this food?

Or who gets to eat it? Do you as a donor have different expectations of a faith-based emergency food shelf than for one supported by your tax dollars? The program could provide a few paragraphs of explanation in its annual report or on its website that would allow us to understand and appreciate more of the challenges faced by these kinds of services.

Does it matter what happens afterwards to those people whose hunger is slaked even just a little by the efforts of this program?

We imagine they have other needs as well – temporary homelessness, trauma, unemployment, disability. Many of us would like to know if people coming for food also get attention for other needs?

And can we take seriously the claim that a food shelf “ends hunger” – as it might be claimed in its mission statement?

Ending hunger will take more than emergency food shelves, even if there were one on every city block, in every rural village, or at the edge of every broken river dike. Ending hunger will take the combined effort of many different kinds of efforts to fix the private systems and markets that allow substantial hunger to exist.

Hunger is a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions. Yet every emergency food shelf and every other kind of food-focused organization can play a part in advocating promising solutions, even if advocacy and coalescing isn’t its primary work.

Each of these efforts can contribute to food system reform; we as donors need to know what it’s doing, what progress is being made, and what more they could do if better resourced. If programs communicated to their supporters what they were doing (or would like to do) to promote promising solutions to the systemic problem of hunger, then more resources, skills, and focus could be brought to bear.

A “pound of distributed food” may be a good measure for evaluating relief efforts for a singular, acute emergency such as a flood or pandemic, when perhaps anything eaten staves off starvation. It’s not as good for evaluating the promotion of healthy lifestyle, or healthy community, or healthy economy.

Additional measures are needed even to begin to convey all that’s important in efforts to “feed the needy,” much less to “end hunger.” Measures don’t have to meet the gold standard, or the US Bureau of Standards standard, or even quantification. Instead, measures should meet the standard of “shared understanding” – numbers accompanied by good explanation or narrative can achieve that.


How to cite this post: Mayer, Steven E., Problems With Using a Single Measure of Success. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommu, ( [downloaded month, date, year].