Measuring impact like the Gates

Thank you to self-described philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz of Philanthropy Blog 2173 for alerting us to the resource “A Guide to Actionable Measurement” put out by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m preparing materials for two workshops on why measuring societal impact is important and this couldn’t have been dropped in my lap at a better time.

Just yesterday, I was discussing the framework for one of those sessions with a board member who will be at this retreat and has been thinking carefully about this topic. The retreat I’m preparing is designed to help program staff and board members learn to love evaluation — okay, maybe not love yet, but appreciate the importance of.

We both agreed that the conversation about measurement needs to shift away from evaluation, which conveys judging, to learning, which is about a desire to get better at what you do for the sake of the people or community you serve.

So let me say I was cheering when I read the  three principles that The Gates Foundation says guide its approach to measurement:

  1. “Measurement should inform specific decisions and/or actions.
  2. “We do not measure everything, but we do strive to measure what matters most.
  3. “The data we gather help us learn and adapt our initiatives and strategies.”


Their formula for actionable measurement is just brilliant in my book:

“Planned collection, analysis and synthesis of data + time devoted to development of reflection and insight + willingness and ability to change = Informed Decisions & Actions”

With the growing drumbeat to rate and rank nonprofit outcomes, it is refreshing to hear such an important funder talk about reflection, insight, adaptation, learning.  I’m also impressed that this foundation that has more money than any of my clients could ever dream of makes a point that they are judicious about what they measure as they can’t (and shouldn’t) try to measure everything.

They also note that the initiatives they fund are one of many factors that lead to large community change. Thus, while they track those top level  indicators of what they call “strategy-level”  outcomes and impact, they don’t try to account for how their specific investments contribute to that impact as they know they are one of many partners pushing to the same objective.  That should come as a relief to many smaller organizations whose funders are asking them to show how their limited programs are ending poverty or hunger, etc. Now you can cite the Gates Foundation.

My advice: download the guide, read and discuss it with your Board and staff. It may give you many ideas for how to approach the idea of evaluation and measurement in your organization.

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