Brian Emmett, Chief Economist, Imagine Canada
Results definition and management are hot topics these days, given additional attention by the recent decision of the Hewlett Foundation to cease funding “groups that provide research on philanthropic strategies that produce measurable results.” (Hewlett Ends Effort to Get Donors to Make Dispassionate Choices on Giving) Amidst the wide and understandable debate about the Hewlett decision, some of the fundamentals at stake are at risk of drifting into a distant mist.
As Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Government of Canada, I was impressed with the auditor’s motto: “What gets measured gets done”. This struck me as a simple but profound management insight. It was a neat explanation of why environmental values – so important to Canadians in general – were routinely neglected in government and private decision making. The underlying causes were measurement and management; that is, these values were often intangible and difficult to measure and to incorporate in management frameworks.
Measure more, measure better
It followed that one key way to improve performance in this area was not to make ever more sincere promises about doing better, but to turn to the difficult and demanding process of developing stronger measures of environmental quality. This would lead to better management and decisions that produce the results Canadians value. Conversely, measuring less or measuring badly would lead to approaches that were at best inefficient and at worst counterproductive. Now that I am working as Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector, I find these insights equally applicable to many social programs with their hard to measure objectives such as equity and justice.
The emphasis on results definition and management is now widespread in government where some of the best work on developing results is being done and where results-based approaches are being used in the design and development of a wide range of government programs. This insight underlies the movement to create social investment partnerships between government, charities and the private sector where it is thought a major benefit would be the access to private sector experience with innovative metrics and management. It is an insight which appeals directly to a younger generation of potential donors who have grown up in the metrically oriented knowledge economy.
Stronger focus on metrics generationally driven?
Leaving aside the thorny question of whether existing donors respond to measurement of results, metrics will become more important over time. First, all of we (charities, government and private sector) are being relentlessly pressured to be more efficient and effective and to manage a wider range of social, environmental and economic issues. Better metrics are an important tool – a necessary but not sufficient condition – for making the improvements that society is demanding. Second, we have to be aware of today’s and tomorrow’s donors. I haven’t noticed that the younger generation is any less committed to social and charitable issues than is my boomer cohort. However, they are a lot more accustomed to using metrics when making decisions.
An emphasis on results is a win/win. Measurement can lead to better management and more impact per charitable dollar and appeal to a new more metrically oriented generation. The bottom line is that the results movement is here to stay – and to grow.