Book Review: 'The Social Profit Handbook'


This post first appeared on PhilanTopic.

In his poem "i thank You God for most this amazing," e.e. cummings wrote that "now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened." It is precisely this sense of clarity that comes to mind when reading The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) by David Grant, former president and CEO of the New Jersey-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

As Grant notes, the world of the twenty-first century increasingly is defined by metrics and data. The social sector is no exception, and calls for better and more timely measurement of its activities have become a feature of the landscape. Gone are the days when funders were content to let intuition and anecdotal evidence guide their funding choices. Donors today — both institutional and individual — are keen to move the needle on large, seemingly intractable societal and environmental challenges, and in attempting to do so they have become ever-more interested in data that can demonstrate the impact of the programs and organizations in which they have invested. As a long-time admirer and teacher of poetry and literature, Grant relishes the complexity of this brave new world and applies his nuanced perspective toward a keen assessment of what it means for the field. "Social profit," he writes, "is about desired social benefits, and so it has to be defined locally depending on what a community of people values and what they need. It will never have a fixed or standard measure, and efforts to create one will get bogged down in endless quibbles and conflict about measurement itself."

According to Grant, efforts to measure social impact are fraught with challenges with which the for-profit world does not have to contend. Trying to balance multiple bottom lines, for example, is necessarily more complex than having to worry about a single one, he notes, especially given the fact there is no single agreed-upon unit of "social profit." Rather than focus on quantitative measures, therefore, Grant emphasizes qualitative "formative assessment." While not ignoring quantitative performance measures, he favors "soft measurements" and argues that a true assessment of social profit demands "a combination of pertinent metrics and a qualitative description...that can only be created by the people who are providing and receiving it."

The primary tool Grant shares in the Social Profit Handbook to that end is the rubric. Indeed, case studies and how-tos in the use of rubrics as a strategic planning and formative assessment device are the heart of the book. Having first used them for curriculum and assessment design at the Mountain School of Milton Academy, which he co-founded with his wife in the 1980s, and later at the Dodge Foundation, Grant can speak to their usefulness and effectiveness as an expert.

For Grant, a rubric is a customizable framework, more art than science, that is particular to each institution and the outcomes it seeks. It provides, he writes, "a structure and format for asking what matters to us, and for describing what success will look like." Key to the process of rubric design is "backward planning," which requires "mission time" on the part of the organization's leadership, as well as time for reflective alignment across the organization. In other words, it is a way to define what success looks like, and, at the same time, a tool that allows organizations to see how they are performing against their goals. In an example taken from his time at the Dodge Foundation, Grant describes laying out standards for a program officer visiting a grantee. The rubric in his example has four levels of performance: "1) Poor, 2) Acceptable, 3) Our Standard: Respect for Grantees, and 4) Our Goal: Exceeding the Standard." The process of the program officer's assessment of the grantee is described across three layers at each level: "Regarding substance" (e.g., thoroughness of proposal reading), "Regarding logistics" (e.g., the site visit meeting set up and execution), and "Other consideration" (e.g., the relationship management process with the grantee). By doing the hard work to define the ideal site visit process and describing each aspect of the process, Grant writes, the foundation ultimately was able to add to the community's social profit.

While The Social Profit Handbook itself is a useful tool for anyone interested in the business of social change, it is hard not to reflect on the privileged position from which Grant writes and that informs his rubric-focused approach. The lessons and advice he shares are backed up by years of demonstrated success, as is made clear by the numerous quotes and case studies featuring former grantees of the Dodge Foundation. However, this rubric-based approach to assessing social change is not as widespread throughout the sector as perhaps it should be. As such, this reader would have appreciated a more detailed discussion of how to implement the model in situations that are not funder-driven.

The book also would have benefited from a deeper exploration of how one balances a rubric with the more quantitative measures that are often central to a funder's reporting requirements. (Readers seeking a quantitative handbook on how to measure performance of mission-driven organizations would do well to consult Performance Measurement: Getting Results by Harry Hatry [Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2007]).

Those thoughts aside, The Social Profit Handbook fills a gap in the social sector literature, offering both a compelling argument against the effort to solely quantify social change and a tool to help organizations define and measure the social change they seek to create. Grant avoids simple solutions and instead shares a process designed to help mission-driven organizations define and measure their outcomes and achieve their goals. And that is something from which we all stand to profit.

--Michael Weston-Murphy
Lisa Goldberg Fellow
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University