Measure Matters

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 (All day)

Derek Barker, in The Kettering Foundation’s most recent quarterly Review, calls this shift “the colonization of civil society.”  He raises alarms about how nonprofits and philanthropies look today – more than ever before – like their government and corporate counterparts.

At the core of Barker’s argument is the idea that businesses, nonprofit organizations and public administration have been so overtaken by an insistence on strict accountability that their leaders have concluded, in effect, that the proper role for citizens in a democracy is not making decisions themselves, so much as “delegating decisions to institutions that can demonstrate their effectiveness.” He calls that a one-way street that relegates citizens to mere receptacles for services.

My friend at UC Berkeley, Dr. Madeline Landau, looks at these developments through the lens of an urban anthropologist. She coined the term “hyper-innovation” several years ago to refer to philanthropy’s and government’s tendency to pancake program after program onto communities. We do this, she says, too often ignoring a careful understanding of the natural leadership pathways and the generations of memory present in virtually every community.

Because we undervalue these pathways and reservoirs of memory, Dr. Landau says, the result when our program and funding come to a close is that much too little of substance remains in place.

Barker and Landau are nothing if not persuasive in arguing that too much focus on over-measuring, over-programming and hyper-innovating works against helping communities. If their arguments are correct – and I believe they are – then it’s up to us to assume responsibility for creating measures appropriate to the conditions that elevate civil society without boxing out creativity and innovation while proving that what we do matters.

In a time rife with desires for widget-predictable exactitude in the civic and social arena – industrial and bureaucratic measures not always adapted to social and civic realities – we need to gauge effectiveness on terms that ensure the vitality of community life.