Measurement Takes Center Stage in Bill Gates’ 2013 Letter

In the annual letters from Bill and Melinda Gates which was released today, measurement takes center stage.  In case you weren’t yet convinced, I imagine this clear declaration — which ties the concepts of business innovation like incremental improvement of steam power to making vaccine delivery more effective — will move the needle for you.

Here is a snippet from Bill Gates:

Of course, the work of our foundation is a world away from the making of steam engines. But in the past year I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal. . . .This may seem pretty basic, but it is amazing to me how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.

The primary components of the message, which discusses the areas of innovation and work that the Gates Foundation invests in, can be summarized as:

  • Setting clear goals
  • Measuring
  • Looking at the data / getting feedback
  • Improving the process
  • Repeat

This general framework has been applied to polio eradication in Nigeria, improved health services in Ethiopia, and education improvement here in the U.S. The call to action in the letter is clear, and I think one that resonates with any nonprofit who struggles to find more efficient ways to achieve their mission and to raise support from grant-makers and donors to help them do that. Bill Gates sees measurement as the path to follow to meet and overcome that challenge:

Given how tight budgets are around the world, governments are rightfully demanding effectiveness in the programs they pay for. To address these demands, we need better measurement tools to determine which approaches work and which do not.

A very important point that the letter makes is that it is not simple or easy to do the measurment and feedback stages correctly. As our own 2012 State of Nonprofit Data Report showed, 99% of organizations are already in the practice of collecting and tracking various types of data and metrics about their work and tactics — but a very few indicate that this data is useful for progammatic decision-making.  Furthermore, without the right skills or the right leadersihp for analyzing and applying the data, it’s very likely organizations can make bad decisions based on erroneous or incomplete data.  One of the examples in the Gates letter highlights this risk:

Ethiopia’s recent effort to monitor the progress of its immunization program is a good example of learning from data and—the hardest part—using data to improve delivery of the right solutions. A recent national survey of Ethiopia’s vaccination coverage reported vastly different results from the government’s own estimates. Ethiopia could have ignored this conflict and reported the most favorable data. Instead, it brought in independent experts to understand why the measurements were so different. They commissioned a detailed independent survey that pinpointed geographic pockets of very high coverage—and very low coverage. The government is now working to develop better plans for the poorer performing regions.

I don’t think it’s shocking or going out on a limb to assume that the majority of organizations might have chosen to ignore the conflict and report on the favorable data, which is why there needs to be education for nonprofits on proper data analysis — not that executive directors need to become statisticians (though that would be helpful), but they need to understand that correct analysis is vital to making the right conclusions.  

There also needs to be accountability, which I believe is a role the nonprofit community in partnership with the grant-makers need to play.  An important component listed above is the feedback loop in any measurement process — we need to create a culture that is open to failure for the sake of identifying where we can do better.  If organizations are afraid to report failure to funders or donors or peer organizations, then we won’t be learning from our mistakes, and no one will benefit.

I’d like to point folks to a new workbook we just released that is designed to help nonprofits begin (or improve) their measurment process.  From goal creation to making a plan to implement the process, we hope that the worksheets in this free resource will be helpful tools in your on-going work:

> Get the Workbook: Getting Started With Data-Driven Decision Making