Metrics "R" Us

Here’s the conundrum for us. Suppose someone were to give you a pot of money to work on a key challenge in your community. How would you know you’ve made a difference? How much change would you be willing to bet could be created in maybe two to three years? Every day we are told to be successful. We hear this relentless mantra in TV ads, magazine stories, even from Donald Trump and Martha Stewart. Indeed, we’re expected to create change seemingly overnight, and all with aplomb. In the world of civic change, the notion of metrics – of being able to measure success – is everywhere. The guardians of money want to know they’re getting a big bang for their buck.

I’ve long condemned the metrics mongers who oftentimes demand unrealistic results from change efforts. But I have been equally critical of those who say that outputs from civic work cannot be measured because somehow we’re engaged in “God’s work” – endeavors too important to be put to the measurement test. To such folks I would offer this retort: It is because our work is so important that we owe it to ourselves and others to gauge our efforts. Without clear measurements, how else will we know we’re on the right path?

But what are clear measurements? Recently, The Harwood Institute co-hosted with the Nevada Community Foundation a national convening on a new community-driven funding system called the Community Conference. One might argue that the Las Vegas Community Conference would be successful if it helped to improve public schools, health care, or some other pressing concern through its small grants.

But what if we were to say the Community Conference would be successful because of how it did its work – for instance, because it spreads to other groups new ways to think about civic engagement; or entices new funders to come forward who otherwise wouldn’t; or generates new trust in the community because it acts with transparency; or finds ways to amplify the community’s voice on key concerns?

And lo and behold, what if the Community Conference did all these things and still didn’t move the needle on public schools or health care or any other community concerns? What would we say then?

Our task is to find the right balance between two seemingly competing goals that are in reality inextricably intertwined and interdependent. Here’s what I mean. In our efforts to build more connected and vibrant communities, we must never lose sight of pressing concerns that affect people. For me, I’m in this work because I believe we must repair breaches in our society, such as inadequate public schools, so that all kids can get a good education. And yet, without developing the relationships, structures, norms, and leaders in our communities, the chance for any real progress on such pressing concerns is slim to nil.

The people who call for metrics will not cede their efforts, nor should they. Their intentions are good, even if we may dislike the measuring sticks they wield. At issue is the lens through which people see change. And I believe that if we want to shift that lens, then it is incumbent upon us to propose new metrics – ones that reflects a deeper appreciation for how change comes about and what progress looks like.

So, let us declare that “Metrics 'R' Us,” and let us lead the way.