Assessment and Social Justice Funding

Achieving social justice requires transformative change – something that can’t be accomplished overnight. This presents challenges for philanthropic funders, including how best to measure progress when this transformation is often difficult to gauge and tough to quantify.

This concept surfaced again and again at the April Council on Foundations’ 2010 Annual Conference, where leaders in the philanthropic sector gathered to discuss many important and intersecting issues, guided by a framework of social justice, social change, and social innovation.

During a session facilitated by Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one audience member bemoaned the “new obsession in the sector with metrics and measurement.” She then asked panelists to address her perception of an inherent conflict between social justice work and the foundation world’s “obsession” with metrics.

This is an argument we at CEP have heard before. Some practitioners in the field feel that assessment is not applicable to social justice work, because “you can’t measure social change.” Others argue that the trend towards measurement leads to counting things that don’t count; that metrics are a fetish that undermines impact.

While we acknowledge that, like anything, the movement toward measurement can sometimes be poorly implemented, we feel that to dismiss measurement altogether is a grave mistake. We should not underestimate the power of good data to improve decision making.

At CEP, using good data to help guide decision making is what we are all about. So we were relieved that  members of this panel on social justice, Deepak Bhargava, executive director, Center for Community Change,  and Constance Rice, cofounder, The Advancement Project,  made this point so well. They acknowledged the situations in which metrics and measurement can be burdensome and unnecessary, but then drew a clear distinction between the misuse of metrics and the useful ways that metrics can guide the achievement of important goals.

Bhargava explained that when thinking about immigration reform, he understands that ultimate goals might be well into the future, rendering near-term assessment difficult. But, in the meantime, he can measure attendance at rallies or survey populations about their perceptions of immigration rights to measure progress toward his end goals.

Rice described her frustration at funders who ask to measure the wrong things, like how many pamphlets were handed out at an information session. But she also noted that when funders are interested in measuring progress toward specific goals, she is interested in helping them.

She has worked to reduce the number of children exposed to intense gang violence. By surveying those adolescents about their exposure to violence, or looking at rates of violent crime, or measuring these students’ success in school, she can begin to measure the effectiveness of her work.

These are just a few examples of the thoughtful use of metrics to track progress toward social justice goals.  In our work at CEP, we hope to help funders – social justice focused or otherwise – achieve impact by working in the ways Bhargava and Rice describe: getting clear about goals, pursuing coherent strategies, and using relevant performance indicators to gauge progress.

When billions of dollars are at stake and funders have the potential to make progress against some of the most pressing social issues of our time, we should not shy away from assessing performance and adjusting strategies when necessary. The social justice funders we’ve worked with such as The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and dozens of others, have found value in the comparative feedback they were provided by CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR). Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how a social justice funder could afford to operate without hearing from those on the front lines doing the tough work day in and day out.

We just don’t see a tension between performance measures and the pursuit of social justice goals.  We think good data, thoughtfully used, will only fuel the progress that social justice funders seek.

Sindhu Knotz is a manager and Mishan Araujo is a research analyst at CEP.

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