Beyond ‘X Number Served’

Essay by Mona Mourshed: “Metrics matter, but they should always be plural. Focus on the speedometer, ignore the gas gauge, and you’re sure to stop short of your destination. But while the plague of metric monomania can occasionally be an issue in business, it’s an even bigger problem within the social sector. After all, market discipline forces business leaders to weigh tradeoffs between costs and sales, or between product quality and service level speed. Multiple metrics help executives get the balance right, even as they scale.

By contrast, nonprofits too often receive (well-intended) guidance from stakeholders like funders and board members to disproportionately zero in on a single goal: serving the maximum number of beneficiaries. That’s a perfectly understandable impulse, of course. But it confuses scale with just one impact dimension, reach. “We have to recognize that a higher number does not necessarily indicate transformation,” says Lisha McCormick, CEO of Last Mile Health, which supports countries in building strong community health systems. “Higher reach alone does not equate to impact.”

This is a problem because excessively defining and valuing programs by the number of people they serve can give rise to unintended consequences. Nonprofit leaders can find themselves discussing how to serve more people through “lighter touch” models or debating ambiguous metrics like “reached” or “touched” to expand participant numbers (while fighting uneasiness about the potential adverse implications for program quality)…(More)”.