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“Impact measurement” has probably been the biggest buzzword in the philanthropy community over the past decade, as this “industry” strove to move away from its sleepy beginnings in the comfortable world of grant-giving and begin to offer greater accountability towards donors, but also towards project beneficiaries and other stakeholders.  Yes, we all want to change the world for the better.  But how do we measure that more precisely?

A cottage industry has therefore sprung up around “theories of change”,   “pre- ad post-tests”,  “key performance indicators”  and “couterfactuals” , much of it terminology borrowed from the commercial world of financial investment.  To the extent that this furthers accountability to and of donors, it is all to the good.  But are we losing something along the way?

All of this has spawned a new class of donors known as “impact investors”.  First surfaced as a term in 2007, this particular genre of social investors has grown exponentially, buoyed by such eminent champions as Pope Francis.  From an estimated market volume of  just $ 16 billion then to $77 billion in committed funds today, this market is expected to grow by 15-20% a year, possibly reaching $500 billion over the next decade  (out of $61 trillion in global equity overall).

These are donors/grant-givers who are looking for both a tangible  rate of return, but also intangible, hard evidence that their money is in fact producing social change.  In this way, they move beyond CSR and beyond donor whims to a firmer ground.  Market leaders like Acumen, Robin Hood and the Millennium Challenge Corporation have invented financing instruments and performance metrics that are truly sophisticated.

All of this is great stuff, and at Rational Games we are also working to implement this kind of thinking,  both in our own grant-giving and in our efforts to build partnerships with larger donors.  But for a organization dedicated to using games and play to resolve conflict, it is difficult to know just what to measure.  How may games played?  How many players? What kind of games?  And how do we know when the conflict is resolved and whether our games had any part in that?

Perhaps the answer lies in establishing a difference between outputs and results.  If we are reasonably sure that mosquito netting reduces malaria, then perhaps it suffices to measure the number of nets sold and installed rather than worrying about the reduced number of malaria cases.   And in a field that traffics in storytelling and “moments of change”, this may be all we can hope for.

A few weeks ago, one our grantees, “Theater for Tolerance” put on a performance in a local school with a cast consisting of one-third German students, one-third Israeli Arabs and one-third Israeli Jews.   The play was charming and enjoyable, if not totally professional.  But what remains with me was the discussion afterwards with the players, all totally relaxed with each other and enjoying shared jokes and a communal theatrical experience with “the Other”.   I am not sure how to measure that impact, but I am definitely glad we made the grant.

Comments welcome!


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