How organizations make decisions has begun to garner more of my interest as I delve further into the murky undertow of impact measurement. Recently, I came across A Guide to Actionable Measurement (17 pages) offering a glimpse into what influences resource and fund allocation at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s clear. It’s succinct. It’s different.
To begin, they actually articulate why they are evaluating and how the data will be used.
“Our philosophy and approach emphasize measurement done for a specific purpose or action. We recognize the most elegant evaluation is only meaningful if its findings are used to inform decisions and strengthen our work to improve people’s lives.
Our approach is driven by three basic principles: 1) Measurement should be designed with a purpose in mind — to inform decisions and/or actions; 2) We do not measure everything but strive to measure what matters most; 3) Because the foundation’s work is organized by strategies, the data we gather help us learn and adapt our initiatives and approaches.” (Actionable Measurement Guide Cover Letter)
Being able to create impactful interventions to complex problems relies on informative evaluation striking an effective balance between learning (improving something) and accountability (proving something). Both are needed and valuable for understanding how and why an intervention is effective or ineffective.
At present we are super-proficient at accountability evaluation. How many? How often? Numbers in a spreadsheet.
Unfortunately our evaluation efforts often fail to make meaning from the numbers. In what ways did reaching the target make a difference? How did the intervention ‘move the needle’ on the problem it is trying to address?
Putting together an evaluation approach designed to answer these deeper questions can be stymied by the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start or the tendency to build something unnecessarily complicated. Combing through the Guide to Actionable Measurement has revealed a few tips.
Begin by looking at the language being used to describe the evaluation approach. The Foundation is intentional about including phrases like ‘strategic intent‘, ‘theory of action‘, and ‘actionable measurement‘. As an example, using strategic intent over strategic plan has an indelible influence on how the strategy is developed, deployed and measured.
Another manageable place to start is The Actionable Measurement Matrix (Exhibit 4, Page 6 of The Guide). It’s an example of how an illustrative visual can connect activities of a single intervention to the broader strategic intent being deployed to address a complex problem.
Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is careful to acknowledge and measure its role in the creation of the problem being addressed.. Externally, they want to know how their activities as an advocate for policy change have impacted the issues they are try to influence. Internally, they want to know how their interactions with grantees have impacted interventions and ultimately the problem being addressed.