How do we know it works: What are we counting and are we counting what truly counts?

Not everything that counts . . .


Einstein once noted that not everything that is counted counts and not everything that counts is counted. He was describing philanthropy perfectly!  Philanthropy, by its very nature, is an expression of human values. It takes many forms. From the act of giving something tangible (money, time, food) to the abstract and intangible (a kind word, a smile, a wish), philanthropy means many different things to humanity.

As philanthropy has grown in scope and scale, there has been an upsurge of interest in understanding what difference philanthropy is making. In Einstein’s parlance: what counts? That has led to a growing proliferation of models, frameworks and tools for measuring the inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes of philanthropic investments. However, as a quick Internet search will confirm, there are no clear standards for these kinds of measurements nor is there even consensus that these are the right things to measure! It is not surprising that in 2011 Ellie Buteau and Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that only 26% of foundations are using shared measurement systems with other funders working in the same area.

In an effort to broaden the discourse on measurement, I recently joined colleagues Michele Brown from United Way of Anchorage and Erin Dovichin from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to lead a discussion with participants in the Philanthropy Northwest Annual Conference held in Juneau.  Philanthropy Northwest (PNW) represents a diverse community of grantmakers covering the gamut of philanthropic interests. We convened a discussion using three broad areas of interest: conservation, education and economic development. In each area, there are promising examples of shared measurement practices that have the potential to provide greater opportunities for learning about philanthropic impacts as well as for sharing emerging best practices/innovations. For example, the Anchorage 90×2020 initiative has created a baseline understanding of trends in factors that affect youth risk and resiliency. The Conservation Measures Partnership has established a set of open standards that now enable knowledge sharing between thousands of practitioners globally. The Salmon Project has established a comprehensive understanding of the many ways Alaskans value salmon.

Each of these examples reinforced the importance of a collaborative approach to measurement. Donors, implementers, policy makers and program beneficiaries all have a role to play for greater impact; all have a stake in sharing what matters to them, even if not everything they are individually concerned about is counted.