In praise of intangibles

Seventeen wells, nine dams, twenty-three kilometres of road, eighty-four institutions, seven thousand active members. There may be plenty of figures available to help measure the remarkable transformation of a community in Makutano, Kenya. But the process – supported by the Kenya Community Development Foundation and now the subject of a case study by the GFCF and Coady International Institute[1] – has followed its own, organic, largely unforeseen path, taking fourteen years to achieve these results, and the most significant changes may well be in the attitudes and perceptions of the eighty thousand people in the broader community. If there had been benchmarks and monitoring at every step, would Makutano have found and followed its own path towards success?
In the words of Albert Einstein, “Not everything that can be measured matters and not everything that matters can be measured.”

The growing emphasis among foundations on hard outcomes and measurable results may not be a bad thing. Foundations have often been accused of letting too many “flowers grow” and of investing too little in monitoring and evaluation, particularly compared with their bilateral and multilateral brothers and sisters. A culture of learning and reflection within an institution helps to keep it dynamic and responsive to pressing issues of social need. Indeed, over the last few years, conference sessions on this subject – previously relegated to the smallest meeting rooms and attracting only die-hard evaluation specialists – have invariably become standing room-only events. This sudden interest in evaluation reflects a growing awareness of the importance of measuring and understanding the impact of philanthropic investments. But it also suggests that while more and more foundations may indeed be seeking to introduce greater rigour in evaluating the impacts of their interventions, when it comes to the level of practical implementation many practitioners are still searching for the answers to basic questions about methodologies.

Who determines what is to be measured, what is an acceptable outcome, and over what time frame? Or as one development practitioner with many years of working in Africa puts it: “How do we know how many girls have been saved from crocodiles and hyenas when a new well is created or a path diverted from danger?”
Long-term social change is rarely neatly linear: it can be hard to separate out the multiple variables and factors at play, and to develop systems of learning and measurement that reflect these complexities, long-term horizon, and varying attitudes.

Clearly, certain types of development interventions lend themselves to relatively straightforward means of measurement: x number of vaccinations lead to an x percentage reduction in new incidences of a particular disease. But things become more complex when it comes to measuring some of the less tangible, more subjective drivers of development: levels of trust within a community emerging from conflict and division, for example, or the attitudes of young people towards themselves and their futures, or the feeling of ownership and involvement that is inspired when community members contribute to the solutions of their own problems. And yet these may well be key contextual factors in determining the success or failure of other development efforts. A library opened on the right street may reenergize and reconnect a community; on the wrong one it may serve to reinforce old divisions.

Swimming against the current tide of interest in big grants and hard outcomes is a growing group of local organizations – community foundations, grassroots grantmakers, women’s funds, and other local public foundations – which are working in and with communities. In Palestine, for example, when a local foundation – the Dalia Association – ran a small village-based grants programme where community members were asked to decide on how grants were allocated and were also the first audience for grantees reporting back, the point of the exercise was not just to achieve a particular result but rather to model an alternative scenario where community members were encouraged to be a part of and have a view on the kind of development they wanted to see, rather than be the passive recipients of it.

On paper, this kind of “intermediating” can appear costly in terms of ratio of grants made to operational costs, because in many instances local foundations have to work intensively with community groups to bring them up to the level where they are able to manage funds and implement projects for themselves. And yet, in many developing contexts, these organizations play key roles in transforming individuals and communities in fundamental but often subtle ways that are far below the radar of most international funders and their metrics frameworks. How, for instance, do you measure trust?


[1]  The story behind the well: a case study of successful community development in Makutano, Kenya, 2011

Leave a Reply

Notify of
vestiti da sposo

excellent view of this topic ..! good article