Making A Real Difference: Moving Beyond “Metrics” to Strengthening a “Community of Giving”

As a consultant, not a week of client work passes without someone, somewhere asking me about “metrics.”  This word, “metrics,” has come to be used in so many ways that it is beginning to be difficult to understand exactly what people mean when they bring up the topic.  For instance, metrics can mean, “a tool to measure gift officer performance.”  Or, it can mean, “results we should track as an office to evidence our value.”  It is even sometimes used as a replacement for “benchmarking.”

However people may use this now ubiquitous term – metrics – they almost always are focused on advancement or development outputs.  Outputs refer to the activities, initiatives, events, appeals, etc., that we implement and the results of those activities.  Outputs are a description of our efforts or the specific return(s) of those efforts.  So, output “metrics” typically focus on measuring items like: number of visits, amount of dollars raised, number of donors who gave, number of individuals who attended an event, or average gift amount.

The question that the thoughtful advancement leader asks, though, is what difference improving any of these “metrics” really makes?  Why does increasing these numbers truly matter?  So, you raised more money this year as compared to last and more people came to your events – that sounds great.  But, as one of my graduate school professors used to demand of me when I was attempting to explain the worthiness of a proposed research question, “So what?  Tell me why should I care?”

In other words, “what difference does showing improvement in your metrics really make?”

To answer this question, people have started to use a phrase almost as ubiquitous as “metrics.”  You hear it everyday – everyone is seeking to strengthen a “culture of philanthropy.”  And while that sounds nice.  I’m not at all certain that people even know what that means when they say it.  Technically, I suppose, it would be defined something like an “environment in which the love of mankind is strengthened.”  But I’m convinced that is not what people mean when they use that phrase.

Instead, what most are trying to communicate when they use the “culture of philanthropy” phrase is an outcome that matters.  I would suggest most want to build and strengthen a “community of giving,” and are trying to say something like,

“I want more people to understand why giving more is important and to act with generosity toward our institution.”

Why then, don’t we measure what really matters more regularly?  Why don’t we survey our donors to find out how educated they are about our mission?  Why don’t we interview them to find out how important they believe our mission is?  Or, why don’t we engage them in focus groups to better understand how they view giving and their understanding of the psychological, emotional, physical, emotional, and life-extending benefits of giving?  And why don’t we track these measures over time so we can conduct trend analyses to see how much of a difference we truly are making?

Yes, we should be focused on more than activity-based, or output “metrics.”  We should be focused on improving much more important aspects of our work.  But, it’s not really a “culture of philanthropy” we are seeking to strengthen.  What we really want and know we need is a strong “community of giving” around our institutions – and we need to do a much better job of assessing that important outcome.



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