Bringing the “how” of social change back into balance with the “how many”

In the face of so much inequality and suffering in our world, many funders wrestle with the magnitude of their impact. 

They search for ways to maximize the impact of every dollar contributed in an effort to reach as many people as possible. 

But that push to scale up solutions quickly can become an unhealthy obsession with how many people your philanthropic work touches or how much money was spent if it’s not balanced by an equal emphasis on the question of how the work was done, and whether it was effective at fixing the root causes of suffering.  

So often, what we end up measuring and celebrating within philanthropic circles are inputs and outputs, instead of outcomes. 

A focus on the right set of inputs and outputs is essential, but insufficient to address problems at their root and to change outcomes. I believe there are a few key cultural reasons why we have an overemphasis on the “how many” aspect of philanthropy, and too little consideration of the “how”—how lives were changed, how decisions were made, how hearts and minds were converted to make change sustainable, and how root causes were eliminated. 

The scale of the problems skews our focus. In all areas of philanthropic work, whether we’re talking about education reform, hunger relief, disease eradication, or any other area, the need is so great that we all recognize the need for scalable solutions. But our obsession with scale leads us to design interventions with scalability as the highest value, and we often begin implementing those interventions at massive scale before we’ve proven that they are effective at solving the root problem. I saw this happen during my time at D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal legislation passed under the Bush Administration to get 100% of students to proficiency in reading and math by 2013, led to the reconstitution of 18 schools in DCPS in an effort to improve outcomes by raising the caliber of teachers and staff. But our efforts fell far short of our goals. In theory, NCLB gave opportunities for customized solutions, but in practice, the program’s aggressive deadline left no time to develop solutions that took into account the unique situations of each school. . The “how” often gave way to the mandate to improve student proficiency, an output, as quickly as possible.

Another norm within the world of philanthropy that can lead to overweighting the importance of results that are easy to measure is the structure of nonprofit boards and foundation boards. Most boards are made up of leaders from the business sector, and they sometimes end up approaching social problems like business problems, without an appreciation for the differences between the two spheres.

Board members who have had success in a Fortune 500 company may expect social change to happen at a linear, steady pace, and to be as easily measurable as the profits and losses of a corporate enterprise.

When the board is oriented toward wanting to see data that says the foundation is moving the needle, then the staff becomes focused on producing evidence that says they’re moving the needle. Even if they know the data is misleading, they may have very valid concerns about their job security if they can’t produce the results the board wants to see, and so they go along with projects that lead to improved outputs without achieving the desired outcomes. This plays out over and over again in education, whether it’s over-promotion of failing students to the next grade in order to improve graduation rates, or coordinated efforts to improve test scores as we saw happen in Atlanta in 2009

And finally, our culture of individualism leads us to reward and celebrate individual contributors instead of collaborative efforts. It’s easy to give credit to an individual for inputs or outputs; whereas real outcomes are influenced by many factors. When we do see improved outcomes, it’s typically after years, if not decades, of efforts from dozens of different groups. But our culture loves a hero, so we celebrate simplified indicators of social change—which are often just inputs and outputs—in order to identify those heroes. Celebrating these misleading indicators perpetuates the problem of continuing to ignore the “how” in favor of the “how many.”  

I’m not suggesting we need to stop collecting data and using data to make decisions and evaluate progress in philanthropy. For example, we absolutely need to have data around how students are doing and what they’re learning, and testing is still one of our best tools, even though we know it’s imperfect at best. We need to have a way to evaluate whether students have the basic skills they need to succeed.

What is missing is accountability to the real-life outcomes. And accountability to the methods—the “how” of social change. 

We need to reevaluate the way we use quantitative data to assess progress. We need to understand that most of the quantitative data we can collect is just a leading indicator at best, that we’re probably going in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean we’ve transformed anything.

I urge philanthropists to bring this obsession with “how many” people they impact back into balance with the importance of “how” they achieve that impact. Start finding ways to gather proof that outcomes are improving. Collect the stories that show that lives are changing, and not just that data points are trending upward. Stop celebrating outputs that have no correlation to improved outcomes. Lift up the stories of collaborative efforts that produced sustainable improvements, and recognize that social change often looks like two steps forward, one step back.