Don't use a tiny paintbrush to paint a big building
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Don't use a tiny paintbrush to paint a big building

One of the few things I miss from my time in the private sector is the ease of measuring success. In the most traditional sense, value creation in the corporate world is about cash. Profit. The single bottom line.

Now that I work in the third sector, measuring success is a bit murkier. We often measure the things that are easily measurable - like the amount of work that was done or the skills that our volunteers learned through the process - essentially inputs and, sometimes, outputs. And it is true that these measures often have predictive value (particularly when linked to a theory of change).

However, measuring how hard we work or the quantity of results is no longer enough - we need to measure the quality of our results, the impact of our outcomes. But what outcomes should we be measuring? The short answer is that we should measure the outcomes that matter to our mission. Those that tell us if we are having an impact.

Cool Roofs

Let me share an example of great impact measurement that Philip Colligan talked about earlier this year in his blog. The New York City "Cool Roofs" initiative has resulted in painting almost four million square feet of roofs with white reflective paint that then reflects heat, causes people to turn down the air conditioning and as a result reduces the carbon emissions of the city.

Now, "Cool Roofs" could measure lots of things. They could measure the number of volunteers, volunteer hours, or even the number of buildings they've painted. But they don't. They know that it is the surface area that has been painted white that reduces air conditioning use and in turn reduces carbon emissions - so they measure square feet painted white.

Let's take this example to a silly extreme. If, for instance, "Cool Roofs" measured volunteer hours as their indicator of impact, then you would give each person a tiny paintbrush. As a result of making it difficult to paint efficiently, it would take longer to paint the roof and volunteer hours would skyrocket. Unfortunately, while volunteer hours would be high, the roofs would stay hot and the AC would stay on.

Instead, by measuring square feet painted white, we incent the behaviour that is proven to have the desired impact and avoid bizarre practices that meet goals but don't create impact.

Understanding impact

So why then do so many organisations have a mission that is about solving a problem, say increasing community cohesion or literacy, but what they measure are the positive benefits gained by the volunteer? This gets back to the complexity of measuring success in the third sector. It is hard to know what to measure and how to get the data.

Often, it is easiest to understand the impact we are having on our volunteers because we talk with them regularly, they expect to fill out surveys for us, and frequently they just offer up their thoughts and stories about the positive personal change they have had through their experience.

Volunteers are important and so are the benefits that they receive from volunteering. Measuring and communicating these personal benefits can also be an important way of recruiting and retaining volunteers. However, third sector organisations do not exist for the benefit of volunteers. They exist to solve social problems.

One of the things the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund is focused on is ensuring that the work our organisations are doing is effective. Let's stop using volunteer benefits as our primary outcomes, and let's turn our focus to measuring the real impact we want to have. It might be hard, but if we can't show that our work has the desired impact, are we just wasting time by painting a big building with a tiny paintbrush?


Lindsay Levkoff Lynn

Lindsay Levkoff Lynn

Lindsay Levkoff Lynn

Head of Impact - Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund

Lindsay worked on the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, helping to scale innovations that mobilise people's energy and talents to help each other, working alongside public serv…

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