The Hidden Power of Measurement

In case you haven’t read it yet, the 2013 Annual Letter from Bill Gates “makes the case for using a tool of business to improve the health and welfare of the world’s people.”

That tool is measurement, embodied in the letter by the “Lord Chancellor,” a micrometer that allowed inventors to fine tune the performance of steam engines during the early 1800s.

As an employee of an organization that champions the use of data to help foundations practice effective philanthropy, I’m pleased to read that one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists is championing measurement. No matter what prompts you to give, whether you are a $1 billion-dollar foundation or a person dropping a dollar into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas, at some point you should wonder how much good your money does. Answering this question is likely to involve a bit of measurement.

And yet, I found myself wincing when I read the bit about measurement and business.

First, here was a simple and elegant concept—measurement—posited as a proprietary tool of the business world. Yes, businesses measure things. But so do cartographers, artists, and astronomers. And so do foundations and nonprofits. Intended or otherwise, the headline of Gates’ letter serves to reinforce the myth that if only nonprofits would follow the business model, the world would be a better place.


When I’m at the mercy of an ineffective product or service, I’ve often thought the world would be a better place if businesses cared about people a bit more, if their mission statement extended beyond the bottom line. Can’t they adjust their Lord Chancellor so it measures my potential happiness before I’m forced to complain and hope that the market corrects itself?

Of course, compared to measuring the diameter of a drive shaft, it’s much harder to measure something subjective, like my happiness, or something complex and abstract, like food security. Gates knows this, and acknowledges that what sounds so basic—“set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal in a feedback loop”—can be quite hard in the world of philanthropy.

Still, the comparison is plain: there sits the Lord Chancellor, smugly and reliably measuring things for the business world. Why can’t philanthropy do the same?

Second, I don’t think measuring—no matter who is doing it—is such a simple act. It’s true, businesses do accurately measure a lot of things: the number of widgets they produce, the number of customers they serve, their profits and losses. The list of business measures goes on and on, perhaps because many of these things are easy to measure.

But there are also a lot of measurements that businesses don’t like to make, and we should bear that in mind when we hold them up as an exemplar.

For example, some companies engaged in fracking don’t like various regulatory agencies to measure all the chemicals used in the process, citing trade secret protection. Of course, people drinking from wells near fracking sites might like to know what’s in the “special sauce” that extracts the natural gas and possibly ends up in their drinking water.

To be fair, businesses aren’t the only ones who believe in selective measurement. The National Rifle Association doesn’t want the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control to measure the impact of gun violence.

That’s because the act of measuring conveys a sense of judgment and finality. It reifies the things we measure at the expense of the things we don’t. It’s not for nothing that the micrometer was called the “Lord Chancellor” and not, say, “The Lowly Assistant.” You ignore the voice of the Lord Chancellor at your own peril.

This isn’t simply a case of flogging the aphorism that not everything that can be measured is important and not everything that is important can be measured. It’s certainly possible to measure the water quality surrounding fracking sites or the impact of gun violence—it’s not as though we’re just waiting for the next Lord Chancellor to come along.

What’s missing in cases like this, says Cathy O’Neill, writing on her fine blog “MathBabe,” is the political will required to measure. As she notes, Gates’ example of how measurement helped spread the use of malaria nets in Ethiopia extols the virtues of data but ignores the political will that made gathering the data a priority.

And that’s perhaps a big problem, as advocacy is often required to create political will. But it’s particularly hard to measure advocacy efforts. And funders that value measurement may be reluctant to fund something hard to measure, such as advocacy.

O’Neill concludes: “Don’t be fooled by the mathematical imprimatur: behind every model and every data set is a political process that chose that data and built that model and defined success for that model.”

I think such nuanced insights about the politics of what is measured (and what isn’t), or who has access to data (and who doesn’t), or who pays for data (and who benefits) are critical, especially in the era of so-called “big data.” Businesses (think Google) and the national security complex (think the Department of Homeland Security, which hopes to measure “pattern of life” data over a four-square mile block) are leading the charge. When will philanthropy follow their lead and take advantage of all this seemingly wonderful data?

Maybe sooner than you think. Lucy Bernholz in her industry forecast predicts that information (from philanthropy’s “data backbone”) and mobile giving will soon create a world where “crowd-sourced and –funded groups will clean beaches, feed the homeless, help the elderly, respond to disasters, all while not relying on or turning to an organization for help.”

Perhaps. But I think we have a long way to go. For instance, I was initially impressed by reports that Occupy Sandy, the ad hoc response to Hurricane Sandy, was being more effective than FEMA. This strikes me as the sort of response Bernholz envisions. But now The Huffington Post reports that Occupy Sandy is apparently struggling to “keep track” of where hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations should go and “little of the money has been disbursed in the three months since the storm.” The story made me think that they needed more than software and communications—they needed organization and experience.

Examples like this make me appreciate the motto of the Founders Fund, a group of highly successful entrepreneurs seeking to fund transformative technology. Their web site asks, “What happened to the future? We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Their answer is that it’s not easy to create the sort of “flying-car future” we’ve been promised. In part, because venture capital in the late 1990s discovered it was highly lucrative to fund companies that solved “incremental problems or fake problems.” But another barrier they cite is the fact that “the amount of data we collect clearly outstrips our ability to make easy use of it.”

I find this skepticism about the easy power of big data healthy, if only because it is being hyped everywhere. But I’m not yet convinced there’s a Lord Chancellor, or, say, a “Queen Cloud” (as in “cloud computing, everything will live on the cloud, the cloud is the answer”) that will measure and illuminate things as neatly as the micrometer did in the age of the steam engine. Big data is important; the will and skill to wield it openly and transparently is even more so.

In short, to be data savvy is to be a bit of a data skeptic. As O’Neill says, there’s “power behind a data collection process.” Part of that power is to choose what to measure, based on values, or biases, or simply limited resources. As Fay Twersky, director of the Effective Philanthropy Group for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, acknowledges in Evaluation Principles, “We cannot evaluate everything, so we choose strategically.”

True enough, which is why we must consider who is part of the “we” that makes such decisions. As Bernholz advises in a fine blog post about defining solutions, “Community residents must address questions about evaluating impact along with staff from nonprofits and government agencies, as well as donors.”

All this is a far cry from the objective and dispassionate verdict of the Lord Chancellor. In the end, Gates was right to emphasize measurement as an important tool. But measurement alone will never ensure that “progress becomes commonplace.” Even in the era of big data, doing good and being effective is likely to continue to be hard and time-consuming work.


Mark Russell is the Director of Communications & Programming at CEP.

data, leadership, performance measurement, role of philanthropy
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