Is It Time for RISKY Goals, Not Just SMART Ones?

Assessing impact is a challenge faced by every grantmaker—including those interviewed for a new report, Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking. Produced by the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group, this report collects and analyzes data about the state of funding by foundation donors on human rights issues.

In the qualitative research conducted for the study, some of the challenges faced by the field come into sharp relief. The Foundation Center/IHRFG research documents that one of the most challenging factors for funders is “the difficulty of measuring abstract human rights concepts” within the often complex, unpredictable contexts in which human rights work is done. This finding echoes a report released last September by the International Council on Human Rights Policy.

The ICHRP report, which explored the impact of a cultural shift within philanthropy toward “measuring results,” was clear about its concerns:

“That human rights work is being driven into “what’s measureable instead of what matters” (i.e., that a focus on programming with benchmarks and predicted outcomes/impacts is actually narrowing or diluting visions of broad social change or justice.)”

If this assessment is accurate, then it should be a central concern for funders of human rights work. On the one hand, the Foundation Center/IHRFG research makes it crystal clear that we must find better ways to communicate the impact of human rights funding if we are to sustain and advance the field. On the other, we face the reality that the dominant approaches to evaluating impact are themselves affecting—perhaps diluting—the very approaches that our grantees are using, whether or not we ourselves use those evaluation methods.

Both sets of research identify the tension between the trend toward requiring short-term, realistic, measurable goals (often called SMART goals) and the broad, long-term, structural changes sought by human rights organizations and their funders. Goals that are SMART (an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound) may be ideal for short-term planning, but it has become an increasing part of planning and evaluation in general, and I believe that the work human rights donors fund doesn’t always fit within the SMART box.

I think of one grantee of Global Fund for Women, who writes recently of their work to challenge the “moral policing” of women and LGBTQ individuals in a context where “women’s bodies become the battlefield for the most fundamental of women’s rights: the right to control and make decisions over our own bodies. Who women have sex with, what women do in private spaces, what women wear, what women drink, what women eat, how women talk and walk, have all become legislated.” This group faces rising hostility toward its goal of creating communities where all people feel safe and empowered to be themselves. In that context, its goal can seem too ambitious to be “attainable.”

In fact, much of the work that human rights donors fund is to achieve goals that have never, or only rarely, been achieved before: freedom from rape or domestic violence; the right to marriage equality; or freedom of the press in a country where journalists are murdered for publishing the truth. If we want predictable, achievable goals we are much better off sticking with the status quo than trying to change it.

I think its time to propose RISKY goals as a complement to SMART ones. This is risky in the best sense. In the way that Gandhi and King and Anthony understood that their goals were risky, possibly unattainable, but the right thing to do none the less. RISKY goals are:

  • Rights-based: acknowledging basic human equality and dignity, working for structural change rather than taking a charitable approach,
  • Inspirational: they inspire others to get involved, they can unite broad-based movements,
  • Sustainable: rather than attainable in the near term, we know this is a “long-haul” venture, and work toward these goals must be sustained over time,
  • Knowledge-based: strategy is still based on good data and good learning about social change, and
  • rather than neatly fitting into a reporting window, these kinds of goals may take Years to achieve.

What would it mean to ask grantees about their RISKY goals and not just their SMART ones? What would it mean for funders to own that we ourselves have RISKY goals? Over the last decade, new methodologies have emerged that begin to move us in this direction, from outcome mapping and outcome harvesting to “Most Significant Change” to process tracing to the Women’s Funding Network’s “Making the Case” framework. Tools like these can give us more room to learn about social change and our role in supporting it as it actually unfolds. I believe human rights donors can meet the challenge of assessing impact, but only if we first make the space to acknowledge what is risky, complex, and unpredictable about our work.


Caitlin Stanton is the Director of Learning & Partnerships at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.

goals, managing risk, research, role of philanthropy
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