The fetishization of metrics
After looking into the Fetishization of Scaling-up, we are wondering whether we are making a fetish of our metrics.
Social Value is created when resources, inputs, processes or policies are combined to generate improvements in the lives of individuals or society as a whole. It is in this arena that most nonprofits justify their existence, and unfortunately it is at this level that one has the most difficulty measuring the true value created.
Examples of Social Value creation may include such "products" as cultural arts performances, the pleasure of enjoying a hike in the woods or the benefit of living in a more just society.
To quote J. Gregory Dees again, Social Value is "about inclusion and access. It is about respect and the openness of institutions. It is about history, knowledge, a sense of heritage and cultural identity. Its value is not reducible to economic or socio-economic terms."
Let me say that again: the value of social entrepreneurship "is not reducible to economic or socio-economic terms."
Let’s pull out and take a wide-angled look at the central issue here: quantity vs. quality. It may turn out to be an issue that’s central to human life, both personally and for our survival on this planet.
The Quants have been taking a bit of a beating recently. Let’s find out who they are, and then figure out whether the distinction between quantitative and qualitative has anything to teach us about social enterprise.
In economics, it’s the people who use incredibly complex mathematical models to drive their buying and selling of stocks who have earned the name "quants" — and a book about themselves by Scott Patterson whose subtitle tells you much of what you need to know about them: The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It.
I don’t believe the average social enterprise is employing these math wizards, indeed I don’t particularly think these math wizards would want to be employed by people who put the human impact of their work on a level with — or in many cases, above — financial gain. It’s not their style.
Bur the word "quant" is spreading — a recent post on the Muqawama
blog applied it to the authors of a cover article in what is arguably the world’s top scientific journal, Nature
: "So the quants, not content with mucking up the financial world, have turned their attention to the dynamics of irregular war. … I am wary of many quantitative efforts made to ‘explain’ the dynamics of war".
In this case, the math is a great deal simpler — but the issue, again, is that the world does not easily reduce to quantities.
Quants are people who rely on quantitative analysis. They use numbers to figure out what’s what. At times that’s useful: cash flow is important, in fact it is often thought of as the "life blood" of any enterprise. But it’s not, or it needn’t be. Even in war, "morale" can mean more than guns and ammo, and the pen can be mightier than the sword.
Because we’re human. Because we’re complex creatures. Because we have feelings, and care, and are moved by the things we care about. And we engage the world as social entrepreneurs because we care, because we’re passionate.
You might say that the world we live in is largely run by numbers — by volume of sales — whereas we would prefer a world run by the values — by depth of impact.
So at a very fundamental level, we are Qualits, we are the folk who know there’s more to human life than numbers can possibly capture.
And yet — investors are bright people. And they want to know — what’s the impact? How sure are you? Have you measured that? What are the numbers?
The paper Jed Emerson and friends wrote that I quote from above proposes ways to provide answers to those questions, while admitting their suggestions do not "attempt to definitively quantify and capture all aspects of the benefits and value that accrue as a result of a successful program".
The question we are therefore asking has to do with the part of our work that cannot be quantified.
- Are you a closet Quant?
- Are you a died-in-the-wool Qualit?
- A bit of both?
- Are we making a fetish of our metrics?
- Does a focus on numbers get in the way of our humanity?
- Do funders require us to produce metrics that are unreasonable or irrelevant?
- How frustrating is a lack of metrics when trying to decide whom to support?
- What impact — impossible to capture in numbers — are you most proud of?
- What impact measured in numbers makes you most proud?
- They say quantity can become quality — is that really true?
Join Charles (Hipbone) Cameron as we try to make sense of quantity, quality, and the nature of good work.