We need to “move the needle. “ It’s one of the most common clichés used to describe the need to generate change. It might be the best one but there are others, like: “bring home the bacon”, “beat the street”, “go gang-busters.” These translate to “help me show results.” They are about performance. As frequently said but not-so-original or interesting phrases they are often delivered with a tone of slight desperation as people try to validate their work.
The private sector learned a long time ago to incorporate metrics in their day-to-day work. Metrics and their use are also a key part of formal training that prepares you for the “world of business.” Sales, price–to-earnings, indexes, customer satisfaction scores, debt ratios, profit margins, projections, and efficiencies are all aspects central to performance in the private sector. They offer both guidance on progress as well as terminal performance ratings. They help us describe current status, aspirations and results. Metrics are essential feedback in operations, acquisitions, mergers and value. This is because they are integral factors in managing.
Many of the debates about the use, skills with and request for metrics in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are puzzling. It’s vital, for sure, to recognize that social change is not a “controlled” space like a drug trial or cookie factory. In fact, I think the complexities of social change suggest an even greater value for the critical feedback metrics provide in managing and leading. Both evaluative thinking and evaluation are essential to all sectors.
Claims and Cause
While those who declare “move the needle” may not know it… the needle will move. Regardless of their efforts or lack of. Change is constant. There are external and internal dynamics that absolutely will influence the gauge reading or needle status. Frequently, when this phrase is used to inform/define an organization or program’s work, the construct in play is cause. It’s an intention to declare value or stake a claim. Can I declare contribution or attribution, neither or both?
The difference in contribution and attribution are relative proportion of cause. I hit the car when I ran a red light is an example of direct cause. The event is attributed to me. I gave $500 to the $4.8M capital campaign goal deems me a contributor. I am a small part of a big result. When seeking attribution it means particular protocols must be used to determine the portion of effect. It is a high standard.
For example, in determining the influence of a pre-literacy intervention for preschool children we compared children and teachers in Head Start with a Head Start control group. Those with the special intervention and preparation exceeded learning and performance measures many times greater than the control group. This allows the intervention program, with significant confidence, to claim attribution (or direct cause).
Determining contribution is not as difficult and it is more common. The role or sequence of factors in an intervention can be essential to understanding contribution. The strength of a plausible connection allows us to claim contribution. It is a part of cause. Specification of contribution should rely on multiple techniques. Models, plans and other items are useful tools in this determination.
It is vital that independent and quality assessment occurs to assure credibility. There are big challenges in understanding the use and mis-use of evaluation. Evaluation is most certainly affected by politics. If not high quality, the metrics represented by evaluation can easily be “cover” or marketing. Capable professionals know this is why the field has quality standards. They also can spot shoddy quality, marketing and promotional or “lite” use of evaluation. People have anxiety about metrics because they are useful with accountability.
Individually and in our organizations, we all want to “make a difference.” We want our lives and our organizations to be relevant, have meaning and credibility. Whether the sole cause or a contributor, it’s vital to use metrics to set targets, review progress and determine influence on results. This makes evaluation an essential literacy for anyone managing and leading. The dangers and costs of mishandling are extraordinary. When done well, so is the value.
-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. Contact her via: firstname.lastname@example.org.