March 4, 2011

The Metrics Movement and the Realities of How Success Happens

I'm thinking about metrics. Why? I'm in Los Angeles at Grantmakers in Health's Annual Meeting on Health Philanthropy, connecting remarks made by Drew Atlman, President/CEO of The Kaiser Family Foundation and this year's winner of GIH's prestigous Terrance Keenan Award for Health Philanthropy, with another conversation about grantmaking success that I had several weeks ago with another colleague.

Altman - in his call for activist foundations and his reminder that the limitations that we face as funders are often self-imposed - pointed to two trends in philanthropy that he finds most worrisome.  One is philanthropy's fascination with corporate style governance and management practices.  The other is the power of the "metrics movement".  Bingo for me on both, but double bingo on the metrics movement.

Altman said that the metrics movement is discouraging foundations from pursuing important goals, just because progress toward those goals are not easily measured.  He talked about all those things that the Kaiser Family Foundation does that are never measured but that greatly contribute to the foundation's impact - the conversations they have, the connections they make, the knowledge that they freely share.  All those things that funders do in that don't get measured.

So now I'm flashing back to a conversation about success.  This was a conversation among seasoned funders about successful projects that they have funded.  I could hear a longing for a formula in this conversation.  A + B = Success.

One courageous person in this conversation said something about success that completely jived with my personal experience and felt like a breath of reality-insufed fresh air.  She said that the most successfl projects that she has seen have left the person or organization with a clearer understanding of what works and what doesn't work, and positions them for the next piece of work.

Yes, I know that metrics lovers can find some metric opportunities in that definition, and that's really okay with me - so long as the essence of this definition does not get drowned in the metrics.  The essence to me is about learning.  We are doing AND learning.  Our initial idea of what will work may not be the best idea (is it ever?), but we start with our best thinking,, tinker or revise when realities don't match up with expectations,  and keep going. 

This learning orientation is particularly important in the big thinking on small grants world.  As everyday people move their dream into action, my experience tells me that the most powerful thing a funder can provide - even more important than money - is a learnng environment.  Beginning with the questions that are asked in a grant proposal to the conversations that happen along the way and continuing all the way through to the final report, learning should be the goal.  What do you want to do, what is your plan, how is that working, how will you know that you're heading in the right direction, what will you do if you see that you're heading in the wrong direction, what do you know now that you didn't know when you began, what would you tell someone else who is starting out, what did this position you to do next? You may have better versions of these questions (please share!), but these are the type of questions that come from a place of curiosity and support rather than a place of pass-fail judgement.  These are the type of questions that set the stage for honest conversations and learning.

When I think about Altman's comment about the danger of the metrics movement for philanthropy, and my colleague's definition of success. I'm more excited than ever about the funders I see in the big thinking on small grants world of grassroots grantmaking who are really good at setting the stage for learning and are pushing back on the metrics mania that stymies other types of grantmaking.  I'm delighted that we're focusing on working through this tension with Grassroots Grantmakers' next "on the ground" learning gathering in Denver this spring, coming together around the theme of blazing a new trail with learning-oriented evalaution. 

Please weigh in with your thoughts on the metrics movement and the realities of how success happens.  I'm going to be working on this topic in the coming months and am eager to keep learning.

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