Seeking Social Benefit

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How do we lead new, more effective ways to deliver social benefit? For many decades, private sector management has applied this lever to their parallel performance challenges. Bill Gates recently extolled its value. A reasonable answer to the question: measurement.

The Gates Foundation 2013 annual letter spells out accomplishments and an ambitious agenda. But, a key message is measuring for managing. “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition,” wrote Gates. He cites the intent to eradicate polio. And, describes timely, local, accurate measurement is a prequel to “figure out what is wrong, and fix it.”

Performance Management
Measurement is intimately connected to performance management. Performance management relies on data collection, analysis and course correction. Increasingly, the public, stakeholders, funders and others ask:
• What value are we getting?
• What more can our work deliver?
• How are we changing lives and systems?
These are all fair questions that paid (and volunteer) manager-leaders are eager to answer, too.

In Michigan, measurement has had serious application in early childhood development efforts. First Steps, in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Schools, has focused on what works under what conditions in high-risk neighborhoods with vulnerable children. For example, in less than a week, a pre-kindergarten “camp” positively affected the socio-emotional status of children along with adoption of routines. In addition, Play & Learn groups showed changes in children’s language and literacy skills. Because of measurement, it’s possible to demonstrate progress, thoughtfully adapt programs and identify the value interventions contribute to children, their families and the education system.

Funds for Results
In most contexts, funds are given for the promise of a desired change or intended result in the nonprofit sector. However, as resources are more scarce, connecting funding with proven success may become more common. New financing instruments called social impact bonds require explicit results to continue funding. The planned results and associated cost savings are built into the economic model. And, even the US government is exploring the idea of results-based resources in their programs that offer financial support for social challenges (called Pay for Success).

The discipline of measurement is underutilized, perhaps because of the distinct skills it requires. It also carries some risk, because it points out poor program design, plans and/or implementation. Measurement can certainly identify waste. Notably, not everyone has the same vibrant passion for efficiency and effectiveness.

Social Progress
The old adage goes: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. While “social engineering” has plenty of detractors and critical issues in it – much of our tax exempt or civil sector have huge caches of social, political and economic capital aimed at social change that can deliver more, better value.

Literacy and competencies in measurement are essential to both leapfrog and routine progress. These days, a noble cause is only a great start. Authentic claims about impact or serious change must be grounded in precise measurement. Ask Bill Gates.

-Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See: http://www.pwkinc.com

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