By: Rajeev Annaluru (Asha volunteer, past Asha-wide Coordinator)
Most of us in Asha are creatures of the corporate world where it’s common to hear adages like “What gets measured, gets done”, or “You are what you measure” or even “You can’t improve what you don’t measure”. It is a well-accepted and adopted the philosophy that all corporate strategies have a management control system that clearly defines how the outcome of the strategy will be measured and consistently improved year-over-year. While the fact that “measurement helps in improvement” is true for almost any type of organization, the importance of “impact assessment” in the non-profit world has never been such a unanimously accepted philosophy. There are a few fundamental reasons for that.
Firstly, what a Non-Profit Organization (“NPO”) considers as goals may not as clearly definable as it is in the case of profit-making entities. The non-profit sector primarily works on things that are directly related to the human well-being of underprivileged sections. While the quantitative aspects of the work are easily measurable the qualitative aspects may not be as easy. Depending on the focus area of the NGO, sometimes the intangible benefits may be far greater than tangible benefits. Or in some cases, it may take a very long time for the intangible benefits manifest into tangible benefits. Given most of the NGOs are always constrained by resources, they generally tend to question the usefulness of spending the resources on measuring the impact when they have anecdotal evidence of improvement. And in doing so, they tend to miss out on opportunities to make their work more meaningful. But these are problems that can be solved through a careful and a nuanced approach to defining and executing metrics. I will try to put forward some of my thoughts on this a little later.
In my opinion, there is also a structural reason to not adopting Metrics. Non-profit sector, (here I am talking particularly about India) has never been a professionally driven sector. Yes, there are a few notable exceptions but by and large, a majority of the NGOs in India are individual-centric organizations doing charity work driven by emotional or religious sentiments and fail to take a strategic approach to solving the systemic problems.
Consider this, India has the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world. A 2015 survey has revealed that India has close to 3.1 million NGOs. An Indian express article famously quoted back then that we have twice the number of NGOs than the total number of schools in the country and that we have one NGO per 400 people as against one policeman per 700 people. In comparison, the largest donor country in the world, US, has only about 1.5 million NGOs.
With such huge number of NGOs operating in India, one would expect that the socio-economic playing field would have been leveled by now. But we know that’s not true. The reason, one could argue is that the size of problems in India is so huge that despite the 3 million NGOs working tirelessly the progress is only incremental. But if we examine closely, we probably will see that the NGO space is dominated by a large number of unsophisticated non-profits that lack adequate organizational expertise and transparency to bring about true impact at scale. We all know this anecdotally, but the surveys and reports on the NGO sector released in the past few years confirm this with numbers.
But there is an interesting shift that is happening in the NGO space in India. With the implementation of the Companies Act 2013 that brought the mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) policy into implementation, the new crop of NGOs in India has an entirely different complexion. Companies have been looking at their CSR spending not as charitable giving but as social investing. The average Indian donor who once was largely driven by an outpouring of emotional or religious sentiments is now starting to look for “informed giving”. Working in the NGO sector is becoming a genuine career choice and not a living sacrifice anymore. These are all positive changes that are bound to bring greater transparency, talent, and efficiency in the NGO sector. What this also probably means is that funds will disproportionately start to flow into NGOs that are able to show “quantified impact”.
But one may ask, what has Asha for Education, which is largely based out of US & Europe have to do with this shift happening in India? In my opinion, it all boils down to the role Asha plays in the life cycle of an NGO. We are an NGO to our donors in US/Europe but we are more like a foundation or a Social VC on the project funding side. Which means we are ideally suited to play the role of a coach for NGOs (the ones that need coaching of course) on the importance and methodologies of impact assessment in their work. When we do this, we will start seeing a gradual change in the type of programs they run, the type of collaborations they form, the talent they hire or even the funding partners they will go on to acquire.
So to summarize the imperatives of adopting an impact assessment framework are twofold. It’s the most effective mechanism through which we are providing ourselves and the project partners an avenue to constantly introspect and refine the work at the grassroots. And we will equip the NGOs (that are not already aligned) to changing donor landscape in India. Of course, the icing on the cake for Asha is that it will help us be better placed with rating agencies like Charity Navigator.
But as we get into the world of impact assessment, we must understand the risks and slippery slopes involved in picking the incorrect metrics. Metrics in NPOs is a classic case of “one-size-will-not-fit-all”. We must work with our partners closely and give them the flexibility to define their own metrics and monitoring mechanisms. We must not fall prey to picking metrics that are easy to measure or easy to show progress in. We must consciously gravitate towards metrics that may be hard to measure but are relevant and meaningful to the context of the project. And if there is an additional cost involved, we must not hesitate to seed fund the assessment setup.
Figuring out the right metrics for a project is a very tricky and complex task and this has been a key reason for non-profits not adopting impact assessment methodologies. But it doesn’t mean metrics don’t work. It just means that we need to figure out a framework that can be customized to measure the performance of a diverse set of non-profit organizations. This may seem like a difficult objective to achieve in a democratic & volunteer-run organization like Asha, but heck, we are an organization that can boast of superlative brainpower. With a little bit of self-education and coordination, I am sure we can make it work. At the core, it’s a journey worth setting out on. We will not only help our project partners be better equipped for a changing non-profit sector landscape but may also end up creating a framework that others in this space can follow.