How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.

 

As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.

 

 

 

What is wrong with the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse

First things first : I am happy that Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London. Nothing could be cooler than having someone who shares your last name become the Mayor of a global city.

This incident has been commented upon, quite a lot. Well meaning people point out that this is an indication that the ‘West’ is tolerant of Muslims and Islam. And that forces of intolerance have been defeated.

Agreed.

khanacademy

What I do have a problem with, is the simplistic characterization of his win as somehow mainstreaming of Muslims .  The second problem I see with this discourse is a lot of focus on Mr.Khan’s identity as a Muslim ( ok, I get it – he didn’t bring it up, but was rather attacked for being a Muslim, and an extremist). This identification of him – a Muslim- as an ‘outsider’ who has somehow been ‘accepted’ by the establishment is problematic to me.

He is not an outsider, but a London born Brit. Secondly, Islam has centuries of history in Britain and is certainly not a ‘new’ entrant into the nation.

Just as much as those claiming that ‘Islam’ is out ‘there’ and we in the ‘West’ are ‘here.’ This is patently false. Mr.Khan is part of the West; indeed, he is the new West, as he has claimed. The West and Islam are not only compatible, but are intertwined to such an extent that it is not fair to talk about these two as different categories. Conceptually, Islam and West should be seen as co-existing and co-equal, not two separate or distinct entities – in opposition.

Orientalists have always spoken of Islam as the ‘other’ that is somehow inferior to the West. This discourse of ‘Islam and the West’ perpetuates this Orientalist stereotyping.

On the other hand, Muslims in the West do occupy this ‘liminal’, in-between space, which makes them unique. As Kambiz Ghaneabassiri argues, in his analysis of the History of Islam in America – this space between White and Black America, has made American Muslims unique. To some extent, this argument can be used for Muslims in Europe, as well; though the history of Muslims on that continent has been markedly different.

May be it is a nuance that many don’t care about, or may be it comes across as not being celebratory of his victory; but it is far from true. I am indeed happy that someone like him could become a leader in a cosmopolitan society. It is a proud moment for all minorities. Indeed, not many Christians or Hindus will get to lead a city in a Muslim majority country, such as Pakistan, for instance.

So, yes, Western Liberalism is good and mighty and powerful. But at the same time, this Liberalism should also not reduce complex subjects such as Mr.Khan to a mere symbol – a symbol of the ‘West’s tolerance’. Nor should it perpetuate the ‘Islam and the West’ discourse.

Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source :Sociology.about.com

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11186-011-9161-5

[ii] http://press.anu.edu.au//cotm/mobile_devices/ch07s02.html

[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.

More Charity, less Philanthropy?

Do we need more ‘Charity’ (unorganized, personal giving) and less of ‘philanthropy’ (organized, scientific philanthropy)? While scholarship in the last 25 years of so indicates that there is a growing trend towards philanthropy, we are witnessing new arguments that what we need is really more ‘charity’. Bureaucratized and ‘scientific’ ways of giving don’t really work. Don’t believe me? Look at Give Directly, one of the leading proponents of charity. They do claim, however, to be doing ‘scientific’ philanthropy, but in reality, it is direct one-to-one giving, and per one definition, would count as ‘charity.’

Their argument is simple: give the poor money directly, unconditionally and they will figure out how to use it. To the best of their knowledge. There is some wisdom in that. This is not traditional charity or caritas, which focused on ‘character development.’ The assumption in this model of thinking of the individual was that the poor were poor because they were lazy, drunks or just stupid. This is the traditional Christian view of caritas, practiced in the settler colonies in the founding days of America or any traditional society. But there are other ways to imagine how the poor live and work. Poverty is a complex topic, and I will not attempt to analyze it here. But let’s just say that the poor have a bad reputation. Most poor people I know – and have dealt with – are decent, hardworking people. Many of them have not had opportunities to advance, in some cases, they have been dealt with heavy financial blows that keep them poor and in some cases, they are victims of structural issues. So, how does on help the poor, overcome their poverty? There are several possibilities – one is to fund ‘strucutral’ changes in the system and the other is to fund the individual directly.

When it comes to immediate impact and results that can manifest themselves, there is nothing faster than individual giving. While there are limitations (and many assumptions) on how this works, it is a model that seems to have attracted a lot of attention, especially given the criticism of large international NGOs that spend a lot of money, on overheads. As Paul Niehaus, President of GiveDirectly argues in this paper, the donors usually are concerned with ‘warm glow’ or don’t really care about learning what happened after the donations were made. The cost of such learning is high, he argues. “The well-intentioned benefactor has a limited desire to learn. He always prefers to avoid ex-post feedback as this constrains his beliefs.”  This means that the intermediaries – i.e., NGOs create a ‘need’ for the service and attract donations. This is not a case of misleading donors, but one of asymmetric information and also a different theory of change. GiveDirectly offers one model of giving that is direct, (seemingly) impactful and something worth a try. My mom did this for many decades and it seems to have worked – at least in the case of many of my cousins, who have better jobs, education, thanks to my mother’s ‘giving’ directly.

Indian hospitality, American lives

As I am saying my good byes to people in Blacksburg, where I currently live, and moving to NoVA, I ran into an old acquaintance of mine. This professor of religion –the son of American Methodist priests was born in India – and knows Telugu, among other Indian languages. We got talking about a mutual acquaintance, an Indian scholar, who is constantly traveling. He told me that his family hosted this Indian scholar for a week, even though he didn’t know him at all. “Quite a common Indian expectation, isn’t it,” I asked him. And then the conversation turned to Indian expectations of hospitality, the topic of this brief post.Indians do tend to have high expectations of themselves and of others. As guests and hosts, there are particular rituals, traditions and norms that are followed. Living in a Western society does change this norm a bit, but not radically; there is a constant negotiation going on, in terms of how much ‘tradition’ the family will  uphold and I believe how one treats a visitor is a key part of this negotiation.indian-hospitality-HC62_l

Indeed, there are sayings in various Indian languages such as “Atithi Devo bhava,” which is a Sanskrit aphorism that roughly translates as “The guest is God.” Quite a big claim, isn’t it? As a host, we are expected to treat the guest with everything that we are capable of. I remember this, as a matter of upbringing. Every time someone would visit us, my mom taught me to check if they had eaten, would want some water and offer some snacks, at the very least. These were the basics of being a good host. As a guest, it was one’s duty to refuse anything that was offered, and it was the duty of the host to force them to change their mind. This seems to be a nuanced cultural game that Indians learn to play, at an early age. Eventually, one of the parties wins. Either the host wins and the guest ends up eating, drinking or staying for longer than they anticipated, or the guest wins and leaves.

At the root of this persuasive behavior seems to be the need to please the other, and for the host to feel that they are indeed generous. At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that this is common across various cultures and religious traditions in India. I have been to very few homes in many parts of India where this isn’t true. Of course, with changing societal norms, people are becoming less generous with their time and other resources. But what about Indians living in the U.S.?

Indian-Americans live a schizophrenic life. This roughly translates into living ‘American lives’ but being expected to behave like ‘Indians in India.’ This means attempting to follow much of the same rules of hospitality as one does, in India. Many India-Americans I know are incredibly generous people, who try to uphold their traditions of hospitality, but at the same time; are aware of their own sense of freedom and time-commitments. They would not offer the same kind of attention, time or resources to a host that an average Indian host would. Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence and I don’t intend to generalize.

I am reminded of another incident, where a group of visiting bureaucrats from India were hosted at Syracuse University. I was helping with the program management of this particular group and spent some time with the 30 plus group of officers. One of the complaints I heard from them during their two week stay was “Why aren’t the professors inviting us to their home.” This expectation that they would be invited to the ‘hosts’ home is quite natural, in an Indian setting, but for an American to invite you home for dinner, you’d have to be someone special, and not just a regular trainee in a two-week program, who one’d just met. So, there was a matter of being lost in cultural translation.

As generous as Indians are expected to be, there is also wisdom in curtailing over-staying guests. As much as some traditions can be burdensome, there are others that check this behavior, as well. This saying, which is quite popular in India, captures the spirit:  “On the first day, the guest is bhagvan (God), the second day, the guest is insaan (human) and on the third, the guest is Shaytaan (devil),” reminds us that the hosts should be mindful of not over-staying. Finally, my professor friend reminded me that, growing up in India, he noticed a peculiar custom: Of the host offering to pay the return ticket to the visiting guest, once they had stayed for a few days. “This  was, perhaps a way of telling the guest that it is time to leave,” he pointed out. Some wisdom in that generosity, indeed!

The Anatomy of Arrogance: How to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon

Pride is one of the cardinal sins, but in today’s America it seems to have  become a virtue. If Donald Trump’s rhetoric is anything to go by, and the reaction he is getting from his ‘fans,’ then this ‘sin,’ seems to be the way to win elections. In the language of culture studies, this absolute belief in oneself and one’s values, to the exclusion of others has been called ‘expressive individualism,’ by Robert Bellah, the great American Sociologist.          Expressive individualism means that the primary value that needs to be satisfied or fulfilled is the ‘creative self within.’ This means that all other obligations to others need to be subordinated to this urge. One can easily see how this can run into problems, with others – the family, community – which one is part of.trump

The paradox is : How is such vitriol gaining followers and traction? Are the American voters so unsure of themselves that they will fall for the slightest show of confidence – even if it is based on arrogance of power and wealth – and no real substance?

Trump’s self-declared values – in hard work, entrepreneurship, leading from the front, winning at all costs etc. – make him believe in his own individualism much more than any obligation or duty to anyone else. This extreme manifestation of his personal values in the public space is causing a lot of angst. Combined with extreme arrogance and racism (some have called it xenophobia) we have a deadly cocktail, which seems to be gaining traction.

We may actually have to rely on some scholarship, a bit of conjecture and ultimately, the actions of Mr.Trump to understand the phenomenon that is manifest before us. It is shocking, to many Americans that he is leading the polls, according to this article on CNN. The article points out that “Trump secured 17% support, according to the Suffolk University/USA Today survey. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush garnered 14%, while the rest of the 2016 field remained in single digits.” This puts him ahead of many veteran politicians. During the interview, he argues that no one is listening to Republican leaders such as Lindsey Graham and it is reported that the top Republican brass is already concerned that Trump is causing damage to the party.

But the question still remains: Why is this mode of expression so vastly popular – if Donald Trump’s popularity is any indication that it is so? I would hazard a guess that this reflects the current mood in the U.S. – the country is very slowly recovering from a recession. The world is chaotic – each time one turns on the T.V. or social media – one is bombarded with bad news and gloom and doom scenarios- both domestically and internationally. The fact that lobbies are pushing their own agendas, to twist news to their advantage, is another issue. Very few people have the ability to sift through all the noise in media and make sense of what is actually ‘true.’ Besides, we live in an age where ‘truth’ is contested, and rightly so. But we seem to be living in an age, where there is so less certainty about anything. And amidst all this chaos, the American population is shown promise of a better future, stability and ‘security,’ the great myth that has come to dominate American public imagination.

Who wouldn’t want some more security, a better job and a president who seems to want to make America the ‘greatest country in the world.’ Trump is tapping into not just the insecurities that Americans face, but also the core of American exceptionalism, a fact that he openly embraces. He is also someone who represents corporate America and its suspicion of ‘big government.’ This goes well with the Tea Party, Libertarian and other constituents. So, in that sense, Mr.Trump is offering hope, but with a lot of ‘vitriol,’ as Jeb Bush characterized his rhetoric.

My own analysis of what will happen with Mr.Trump’s campaign: As much as he seems sure of himself and his campaign, I think the Trump campaign will burn out, before he reaches the final round of primaries. He is pissing off too many people in the party, to earn any credibility, even to be nominated as a candidate; much less become the President of the United States.

Should you give ‘Directly,’ for impact? Lessons from my mom’s charitable experiments

What is the best way to help people? Is it to let the market forces determine who should survive and who should sink, or should there be intervention from the state or other players? How should philanthropy be directed towards individuals and communities? These questions have neither clear-cut answers, nor a good way of being resolved. At least not anytime soon. While these questions come up in the context of discussion of both domestic welfare programs as well as international development, we often hear talk of ‘impact evaluation,’ and the need to see results.

photo credit : Give Directly
photo credit : Give Directly

So, how does one think of the ‘right ‘answer? Is it ‘Giving Directly,’ i.e., giving cash transfers to the poor, to let them decide what is best for them? Or is it a more targeted and  specific program – like school scholarships, loans to purchase cattle or agricultural equipment? I suggest that this debate is not so much about the right metrics or longer duration of measuring them, but rather about ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy,’ and which one is more effective.

For the uninitiated, charity is any form of giving that aims to save or transform the individual and is short-term and driven by emotions or a ‘higher’ calling. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more ‘scientific,’ way of doing charity, which aims to change the social structures – education, healthcare or others – that make people poor. This ‘scientific’ movement emerged in the 19th century, with the mega-rich such as Rockefellers, Carnegie and Ford – who sought to use their enormous wealth to rectify some social ills. A similar thinking permeates the international development sector too, where there is an increasing demand for showing ‘results,’ for the money spent.

As those who study or practice International Development know, there is an almost obsessive urge on the part of organizations carrying out the ‘development,’ to prove that what they are doing is indeed working. Combined with this, there is also a huge amount of resistance to any form of international aid from certain political groups and ideologues in the West – the Republicans, for instance, who think that the U.S. is spending way too much on aid, than it should. There is an entire discourse of how countries should ‘help themselves,’ and not depend on the U.S. or others – whereas the U.S. spends about one percent of its annual budget on aid, globally. This too, serves as a ‘soft-power’ tool, rather than being wasteful. This helpful chart outlines how much the U.S. spent on aid in the year 2012.

So, American aid to the world is seen not so much as charity, but rather as ‘philanthropy,’ a scientific tool and a measured response to how the U.S. should be perceived by the world. Since WWII, as the only super power in the world, all eyes have been on the U.S., in terms of looking for how it would behave. With Marshall Plan, the U.S. set off a very successful model of development that has continued to be seen as a gold standard.

While there are other discourses of charity and philanthropy out there, that do not privilege or prefer ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact measurement,’ over other aspects of ‘why’ we give aid the meaning making processes that lie underneath these actions. Religious understandings of charity and philanthropy can be seen as the alternate to our obsessive quantification. While Give Directly has received a lot of praise for initial results and successes, critics point out that it is precisely that, the initial results from a trial experiment. Reality, they argue is far more complex and convoluted. And in this, they are partially, if not fully, right.

My (late) mother’s model of doing charity was surprisingly similar to that of Give directly. As a financially independent person (my mother worked as a high school teacher), she made many big and small decisions about money on her own – after taking care of her own family’s needs. This meant she identified the poor both within our extended family and also others, who came to her, for help. In her lifetime, I have seen my mother help at least four families in a substantial manner – to the extent that they are actually better off, in many ways., The kids are better educated, better fed and now, almost 20 or 25 years, after she started helping them, are in better jobs – because of their education or other opportunities – than they would have been otherwise. This, to me, is the power of giving directly. It works. But, with many caveats. Life is never as simple or linear as it seems!

In analyzing the effectiveness of giving directly, there is also the bigger problem of the ‘problematization of poverty,’ as Arturo Escobar has pointed out. This means that we tend to define, measure and position poverty in the third-world, sitting in the first world, not knowing and not fully appreciating how people understand poverty themselves, the strategies they use for survival and what means are available to them. This, I think is the bigger problem in this debate, as much as it is about charity and philanthropy. Until we find more details and more long-term results of what transpired with the families that Give Directly has helped, we must deal with the confusion that exists and the lack of ensuring clarity.